Upfront

For the indigenous people who live on the shores of Alaska's bays and rivers, climate change isn't an abstract concept; it's an imminent threat to their villages and way of life.

That was the message delivered by speakers at a Jan. 23 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Science and Human Rights Coalition. A network of scientific and engineering organizations including APA, the coalition is building awareness around the importance of science to many human rights endeavors.

According to federal reports, 194 Alaskan Inuit villages will experience significant erosion and flooding over the next 30 years, and more than a dozen may need to be permanently relocated. Some tribes have already been forced to leave their ancestral lands, resulting in a litany of social problems, said José Aguto, JD, lobbyist for the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

"You get social decay, a lack of authority—a fraying of the social fabric," he said.

The experience of Alaskan Inuits is just one example of the need to involve indigenous people in climate and environmental issues. Too often, speakers noted, these groups have been left at the periphery of policy development.

In addition to climate change, speakers also discussed the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in addressing the research-related needs in indigenous communities and the barriers current science curricula present. For example, American Indians are underrepresented in science and engineering. More inclusive education is needed, said Megan Bang, PhD, a psychologist in the department of education at the University of Washington. She offered examples of how the philosophies of native and Western science diverge and intersect, and said that K–12 STEM education must work harder to address these concepts.

The meeting also helped highlight how psychologists can advance human rights more generally, said Clinton Anderson, PhD, director of APA's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns Office. "We're able to learn from one another about how to make human rights more relevant to our work and to develop a sense for what our unique contribution might be," he said.

As co-chair of the coalition's work group on Service to the STEM Community, Anderson is developing a webinar template that scientists and scientific associations can use to increase awareness of human rights issues.

The coalition is also developing educational materials that encourage collaborations among scientists, engineers and human rights workers, says Sam McFarland, PhD, a professor emeritus of psychology at Western Kentucky University and co-chair of the coalition's working group on education and information resources. As a first step, the group will create training modules on human rights that highlight the contributions of social and natural scientific disciplines. McFarland, for example, has developed a module examining psychology's contributions to the LGBT civil rights movement, which will soon be available on the AAAS website.

"The hope is that those teaching ethics courses will use the modules as case studies, to help raise awareness of how science is contributing to issues of human rights," McFarland says.

The coalition's next meeting in July will focus on technology and human rights.

—A. Novotney