APA team at UN discusses the international implications of the March for Science.

By Neal S. Rubin, PhD, and Kirsty E. Bortnik, PhD


“We march today to affirm that science is relevant, useful, exciting and beautiful.”
Rush Holt, PhD, #MarchforScience
CEO of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

On Earth Day, April 22, 2017, concerned citizens around the world marched on behalf of science. This global support for the scientific endeavour provided an opportunity to recognize that science and access to the benefits of science, are human rights. Along with numerous scientific organizations including AAAS, the American Psychological Association endorsed the march and encouraged psychologists to advocate on behalf of science. One aspect of that advocacy is to articulate the benefits to society of psychological science.

The March for Science

Across countries and continents, civil society turned out to support science on Earth Day this year. From Fiji to the North Pole, from South America to Asia, from Africa to North America, signs and banners were creatively displayed on paper, in costumes, in the snow and in the sand enthusiastically celebrating the value of science to humanity while opposing threats to the integrity of science. From more than 100,000 marchers in Washington, D.C. to tens of thousands of scientists and nonscientists in other major cities, and small rallies in other places, more than 600 gatherings were reported to have taken place in this planet-wide event endorsed by over 100 scientific organizations (Appezeller, et. al., 2017).

It began as a response to threats to science from the new administration in the United States, which resonated with concerned citizens throughout the world. From the apparent rejection of the scientific consensus on climate change and vaccines, to the threats to funding for scientific research at the Environmental Protections Agency (EPA) and the National Institutes on Health (NIH), it appeared to many in the scientific community and beyond that the promise of science to serve humanity was under assault. These sentiments were shared worldwide (News Science Staff, 2017).   For example, in Mexico City marchers called for funding for science emphasizing the place of science in economic development and in Austria marchers expressed concern over rising anti-science sentiments.

From a simple text message between colleagues following the March for Women held earlier this year, the idea for a March for Science was born (Wessell, 2017). Initial online meetings quickly became a global movement generated by concerns that scientific evidence was being rejected by lawmakers, that immigration bans would inhibit scientific progress, that vital data sets accessed by scientists and the public were being eliminated, and by budget proposals to withdraw funding for research. However, not all voices in the scientific community were in agreement about the march. As this movement grew in size and scope, vigorous debate followed regarding the appropriate role of science and scientists in society (New York Times, 2017). Was the march truly nonpartisan? Should scientists speak out? Is advocacy by scientists on behalf of science appropriate ethically?  Will a public march only further damage the perception that scientists are no longer objective, that knowledge is subjective, and therefore diminish the integrity of science?

On April 22, the voices for nonpartisan advocacy won the day. Some organizations that endorsed the march also provided training for members on how to advocate for science now and in the future. AAAS CEO Rush Holt, a former congressman from New Jersey, was a vocal leader promoting advocacy (Holt, 2017). APA president, Antonio E. Puente, PhD, supported advocacy training for psychologists interested in advancing the interests of psychological science (Puente, 2017). By May the administration’s proposed budget cuts were largely rejected by Congress (Mervis, et. al., 2017). Instead, Congress boosted National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) science missions budget by 3.1 percent and NIH funding by 6.2 percent. Funds for climate research remained flat, though the EPA lost 3.8 percent for their science and technology budget. Federal funding for research and development grew by 5 percent overall. Of course, concern remains high regarding the 2018 federal budget so advocates will need to continue working with Congress to maintain current funding levels.

The human right to science

Little known in the scientific community and in fact also not well known in the human rights community is the human right to science. Originally enshrined in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN, 1948) (UDHR), this right has been largely overlooked.

Article 27

  1. Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
  2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

The right to enjoy the benefits of science was further clarified in Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UN, 1966) (ICESCR).

Article 15

  1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone:
    • To take part in cultural life.
    • To enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.
    • To benefit from the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.
  2. The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include those necessary for the conservation, the development and the diffusion of science and culture.
  3. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research and creative activity.
  4. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the benefits to be derived from the encouragement and development of international contacts and co-operation in the scientific and cultural fields.

Given the March for Science and the current awareness of the importance of science to the future of the human community, it seems a propitious time for attending to the dissemination and development of this right. There has been some movement in the effort to flesh out the right to science. In an interview Farida Shaheed, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights, has attempted to clarify some aspects of the right to science.

Access to science must include participation in the whole scientific process — it’s not just the end product. You have the scientific process, then the knowledge that’s created, then the applications. All of those things make up the right to science. (Kirby, 2013, para. 6).

The Special Rapporteur presented a special report to the Human Rights Council (Shaheed, 2012) in which she addressed the meaning, significance and applications of the right. She also provided linkages between the right to science and other rights and related human rights documents supporting these rights. In so doing, she defined four elements to the right to benefit from scientific progress and its applications:

  • Access by all without discrimination.
  • Freedom indispensable for scientific research and opportunities for all to contribute to the scientific enterprise.
  • Participation of individuals and communities in decision-making.
  • An enabling environment for the conservation, development and diffusion of science (Shaheed, 2012, pp. 9-13).

Chapman and Wyndham (2013) have raised a series of conceptual questions that need to be answered in the service of clarifying and operationalizing the right to science. Their questions involve issues of policy, infrastructure, outreach and education in order to engage key stakeholders in governments and civil society in the realization of the right to access the benefits of science and technology. The answers to these questions must include consideration for the most vulnerable populations in order to be consistent with the Special Rapporteur’s emphasis on dignity and equality. Governments and the institutions of societies must be alert to barriers preventing the development and dissemination of science (e.g., restricting academic freedom). Scientists must act in concert with the principles of human rights and be alert to the potential destructive impacts of scientific developments (e.g., failure to respect intellectual property rights). The logical extension of Chapman and Wyndham (2013) is that the right to the freedom to pursue science and the responsibility of the scientist to society must go hand in hand.

Finally, it is worth noting that the framers of the Universal Declaration considered the right to science under the rubric of cultural rights. The meaning and value of this choice are clearly open to interpretation. In her report to the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur (Shaheed, 2012) seems to take the position that science and the arts should be linked as aspects of human creativity. Whether new music or lifesaving medicines, all persons and peoples should have access to create and benefit from these cultural products. The right to freely explore human curiosity and innovations in comprehending and advancing our inner and outer worlds should be guaranteed for all.

Psychology as a science

Although it is beyond the scope of this article to provide a comprehensive history of psychology, a brief summary is necessary to highlight the origins of psychology and its evolution to the multifaceted, scientific field it is today. Psychology as a philosophical discipline traces its origins to ancient Greek and Egyptian civilizations where philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle contemplated the interconnections of the mind, soul, heart and body upon human behavior and thought (Brennan, 2002). Psychology was regarded as a branch of philosophy for several centuries. However, psychology emerged as a scientific discipline in the middle to late 19th century when Wilhelm Wundt, in Leipzig, Germany, established the first laboratory dedicated exclusively to psychological research (Brennan, 2002). Wundt applied mathematical and experimental methods to the study of psychological processes and thereby sought to differentiate psychology from philosophy. Psychology as a scientific discipline was introduced to the United States in the early 1880s by G. Stanley Hall, who had spent a brief time at the Leipzig laboratory (Goodwin, 2008). Hall and a small group of others founded the APA in 1892 and he served as the association’s first president. Historians of our field have also turned their attention beyond European and North American traditions to explore indigenous contributions to the history of psychological science (Pickren & Rutherford, 2010).

The empirical study of human behavior via the scientific method of systematic observation, measurement and experimentation (vs. theoretical formulation) cemented psychology’s place within the scientific field (Goodwin, 2008). Today, psychology is a multifaceted discipline that utilizes the scientific method in a variety of different settings to enhance our understanding of human behavior. APA is currently the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and has 54-member-organized special interest groups or “divisions” that represent subfields of psychology and areas of specialized interest, reflecting the diversity of the discipline (APA, n.d.). With advances in new technologies and diagnostic tools (e.g., functional neuroimaging), it is anticipated that psychology as a scientific discipline will grow and evolve, and continue to apply psychological knowledge to benefit societies and promote well-being.

Integrating human rights and articulating the benefits of psychological science to society

The United Nations’ ratification of Article 15 (International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) and Article 27 (Universal Declaration of Human Rights) several decades ago provided a visionary roadmap of the human right to science, with more recent efforts from the UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights and others within the scientific community (e.g., Chapman and Wyndham, 2013) to inaugurate a process of developing a regulatory framework outlining how this right might be enacted. The APA, for their part, has incorporated the roadmap provided by the U.N. and has conceptualized ways in which the human right to science could be applied within the context of psychology, and specifically, the ways in which psychologists should promote this fundamental human right in their research and clinical practice (APA, 2009).

In August 2009, the APA Council of Representatives approved a strategic plan that outlined the mission and vision of the APA, and established a set of core values that would shape and guide the work of the organization in the coming decades. Most notable among the items included in the APA vision statement is the connection of human rights to psychology, stating that the organization would serve as:

An effective champion of the application of psychology to promote human rights, health, well-being, and dignity (APA, 2009, para.12).

This is consistent with the ethical obligation of all psychologists to “do no harm” and to ensure the rights and protections of patients, research subjects, clients and students with whom psychologists work (APA, 2010).

Further clarifying and operationalizing the right to psychological science and the role of psychologists in promoting human rights, APA outlined the following:

  1. Promoting psychologists’ respect for human rights in their research and practice.
  2. Monitoring and protection of individual human rights, including psychologists.
  3. Advocacy to ensure that governments meet their obligations to respect, protect and fulfill human rights.
  4. Promoting the contributions of psychology and psychologists to human rights promotion and protection.
  5. Policy development.
  6. Public education (APA, 2017).

From a pragmatic perspective, in what ways could psychology as a discipline apply psychological principles to advance human rights? Moreover, how might findings from psychological science benefit society and lead to an improvement in the lives of others? A partial, brief review of recent psychological research clearly illustrates the various ways in which the many subfields within psychology are undertaking the ethical obligation to promote the human right to science and ensure that all members of society benefit from psychological science:

  • Health psychology investigates the impact of biological, psychological and social/cultural factors upon health and illness. Findings from the field of health psychology have been used to promote changes in healthcare policy, implement community-level intervention and prevention strategies to promote healthier lifestyles in at-risk groups, and train doctors and other healthcare professionals in improving doctor-patient communications (Camic & Knight, 2004), which is especially pertinent in traditionally underserved populations. The current movement to integrated healthcare is a central focus for the education and training of psychologists (McDaniel, et al., 2014).
  • Climate and environmental psychology utilizes psychological science to improve understanding of the impact of human behavior upon our planet. Research findings have been used to promote productive and eco-friendly behaviors (Eom, 2016), highlight ways in which the environment can impact mental and physical health (Pretty et al., 2005), and make unique contributions to urban and city planning (Ellard, 2014).
  • Developmental psychology is the study of human growth and development across the lifespan. Findings from the field of developmental psychology have helped to identify protective familial and community factors in early childhood development (Shaffer & Yates, 2010; Masten, 2001; Werner, 2000), the association of adverse childhood experiences and poor health-related outcomes in later life (Mersky, Topitzes & Reynolds, 2013), and key variables in improving quality of life for older adults in assisted living facilities (Mitchell & Kemp, 2000).
  • Clinical psychology integrates psychological science with prevention, treatment, diagnosis and assessment of a range of mental, emotional and behavioral issues at the individual and societal level. Findings from research have been used to develop interventions to help undocumented immigrant children (Collier, 2015), survivors of trauma (Ehlers & Clark, 2003; Warshaw, Sullivan & Rivera, 2013), and advocacy for various at-risk groups (Bybee & Sullivan, 2002; DeAngelis, 2012).
  • Behavioral neuroscience applies biological principles to the study of the human brain, from clinical disorders and mental processes, to microscopic neurochemical processes. Findings from research in this subfield have identified the impact of cerebral lesions upon cognitive functioning (e.g., atypical language organization in individuals with epilepsy; Hamberger & Cole, 2011), the use of artificial intelligence in furthering our understanding of human cognition (van der Velde, 2010), and developing interventions to assist those with paralysis regain aspects of physical functioning (University of Melbourne, 2016).

Commenting on psychology’s benefits today and in the future, Howard Kurtzman, PhD, acting executive director of the APA’s Science Directorate remarked:

“Psychological science continues to produce new benefits for society. For example, at APA we are engaged in an initiative to translate research into practice through evidence-based clinical practice guidelines. Our first guideline, focused on treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder, was released earlier this year, and we have guidelines under development on treatments for depression and obesity.

“We’ve also been active in the area of climate change. A recent report on the impacts of climate change on mental health, co-produced by APA and the advocacy group ecoAmerica, has attracted broad interest among people working on environmental issues.

“In addition, I am excited about a conference that APA is planning for 2018 on “Technology, Mind, and Society,” which will examine how humans interact with new technologies and how we can shape technology to meet human needs.”  (H. Kurtzman, personal communication, May 15, 2017).

Kurtzman’s comments bring to mind that we need to go beyond crafting clever signs and marching for science, and extend our efforts to educate the public about the benefits of our science. It would seem wise to create new venues for “telling our stories.”  With new forms of technology and media available, might we be more efficacious in our outreach to government and civil society? Some initial suggestions might include:

  • Develop toolkits for psychologists in various directorates and divisions to employ in the service of public education and the development of policy.
  • Build on linkages with other national and international psychological associations to advocate and coordinate educative and policy engagement.
  • Engage leadership to articulate for the public the advances that are and may emerge from new research and treatment methods.
  • Continue efforts to enhance diversity in psychology as a critical aspect of outreach to society and of our commitment to responding to the needs of society.
  • Develop a “Circle of Friends of Psychology” among members of civil society to be inclusive and collaborative with the ideas and needs of the general public.


The March for Science was a global celebration of the virtues of science. Scientists and nonscientists joined together to challenge perceived threats to the future of scientific investigation and discovery. The current discourse on the value of science provides an opportunity to recognize the human right to science and its benefits enshrined in core human rights documents. As a scientific endeavor, psychology offers significant benefits to our global society. It is suggested here that psychologists might extend current programs of public education to inform civil society of the contributions of psychological science for the benefit of humanity.


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About the authors

Neal S. Rubin, PhD, ABPP, (APA team associate) is a professor at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology of Argosy University in Chicago.

Kirsty E. Bortnik, PhD, (APA representative to DPI) is a clinical neuropsychologist licensed in New York and New Jersey and staff member of the Northeast Regional Epilepsy Group.

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