The Limits of the Scientific Community: Human Rights, Scientists, and the Third World in the 1970s and 1980s

Friday, January 6, 2012: 9:50 AM
Los Angeles Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Paul H. Rubinson, Bridgewater State University
Although often caricatured as isolated and oblivious, scientists frequently have engaged in political causes outside the laboratory. In 1975 the landmark Helsinki Final Act empowered scientists to become human rights activists. As scholars have shown, the Helsinki Act created networks to alert the international community of human rights violations committed by the superpowers. According to the Act, scientists would “contribute to the reinforcement of peace…in the world as a whole” since international scientific cooperation “assists…the improvement of the conditions of human life.”

Many U.S. scientists embraced their transnational role by participating in scientific cooperation and exchanges with the Soviet Union. But as exposure to Soviet violations of scientists’ human rights increased, Western scientists came to identify more with the human rights aspects of the Helsinki Act than its cooperative endeavors. Scientists gave priority to helping their dissident Soviet peers to the point that human rights became an essential part of the scientific discipline. Eventually U.S. scientists expanded their efforts to help scientists victimized by state violence and repression in the Third World, including Chile, Argentina, and the Philippines. After decades of Cold War mistrust, the scientific community seemed truly global.

Yet attempts to assist scientists in the Third World never equaled the efforts to save Soviet scientists. While ethnic and religious affiliations tied many U.S. scientists to their Soviet counterparts, these factors alone do not explain the disparity. Stuck in the bipolar paradigm of the Cold War, scientists’ identity as human rights activists became tied to the conflict between East and West. Although successful at aiding dissidents, scientists all but abandoned human rights once the Cold War ended. While scholars often see human rights as inevitably transforming from ideal to reality, I argue that human rights rises and falls depending on the changing identity of human communities.