12/10/2012 05:21 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2013

Science As a Human Right

International Human Rights Day is being celebrated around the world today, marking the 64th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Human Rights in the dark wake of the end of World War II. It is a time to remember what the international community has deemed inalienable rights, including protection from racial and gender discrimination, and access to economic, social and cultural opportunities. These rights, which are solidified in law through international "conventions," have been amended over the past six decades. The most recent addition came six years ago when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. To date, 91 countries have signed that convention.

It is time to add to the list again. It is time for science to be considered a human right.

Science, and the technological advances that emerge from its findings, is more important than ever in the modern world. The ease with which people can communicate across borders and time zones has helped grow economies, forge peace and save lives. But that also means that groups without access to technology -- most often societies in developing countries -- are left behind and will be forced to play catch up for decades to come.

The "digital divide" -- the disparity between people with access to science and technology, most specifically the Internet -- translates into another lost generation when it comes to education, public health and economic viability. It is also our most telling sign that something drastic must be done.

The UN's Under-Secretary-General for its Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimated recently that only one quarter of the developing world had access to the Internet. "This low number of internet users in developing countries calls for increased efforts in shaping and implementing appropriate policies to assist everyone to harness the benefits of the Internet, and advance sustainable development," he said at the opening of the UN's Internet Governance Forum last month in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Giving science the status of a human right would increase its attention and importance on the international stage. The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment not only brought greater light to this abhorrent practice across the world but has been used as a tool to prosecute war criminals. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has prompted governments to build into their constitutions guarantees protecting education, housing and health, among other areas. These rights are more than effective in theory: They have changed the world for the better many times over.

As a lifelong scientist and educator, I have seen firsthand how science inspires, excites and ultimately changes lives. This is particularly true for minorities and women, whose professional ranks in science are thin but growing.

At Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, where I am the Dean of Arts and Sciences, we work diligently to improve K-12 STEM education and engage young students and their teachers. The STEM Education Center at WPI is focused on increasing the number of STEM-trained teachers in elementary and secondary school classrooms, and the university hosts a number of stimulating STEM-focused camps and programs throughout the year, such as the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Camp for underrepresented populations, as well as Camp Reach, for seventh-grade girls who are interested in and excel in science, technology, engineering and math. Alums from these programs have gone on to earn college degrees and are now helping speed the delivery of important products and supplies to help reduce poverty, researching cutting-edge medicines to eradicate disease and save lives, and more.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights aimed to right what was wrong with the world in 1948. Over the decades it has evolved to address other problems and inequities the international community could never have comprehended in the post-war years.

Adopting an international convention to make access to science a human right not only would be a step in the right direction but would honor the intent and spirit of the original declaration.

Karen Kashmanian Oates is the Dean of Arts and Sciences at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass.