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Did you know that you have a right to science?

Human rights — Helle Porsdam is a professor of history and cultural rights. And as a UNESCO Chair, she advocates for cultural human rights. Cultural human rights include science, and they are often overlooked.


UNESCO is the UN’s organisation for education, culture, communication and science.

The UNESCO Chair network promotes international collaboration and knowledge sharing between universities.

Article 15 of the United Nations Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) states:

1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone:

(a) To take part in cultural life;

(b) To enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications;

(c) 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.

You find the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies of Law where Professor Helle Porsdam has her office on the fourth floor of South Campus. The white South Campus walls are here decorated with colourful art and a poster with Danish physicist Niels Bohr. We will get back to him in a minute.

»I am UNESCO Chair in Cultural Rights. And one of these rights is the right to science,« says Helle Porsdam, who is Professor of American history at the Faculty of Humanities and Professor of Cultural Human Rights at the Faculty of Law.

English words sometimes sneak in when she speaks Danish. After studying English and physical education at UCPH, she went to the United States for a year as a student at Yale University before continuing on the university’s PhD programme. She thereby switched to an academic career after originally planning to become an upper secondary school teacher.

What is a UNESCO Chair?

In 2017, after a long and bureaucratic application process, Helle Porsdam was appointed UNESCO Chair as the first, and so far only, person at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH).

»It’s a kind of honorary title that doesn’t come with any money. UNESCO Chairs were created in the 90s to link the universities closer to each other and to the work of UNESCO. Cultural rights are the responsibility of UNESCO, and that is exactly what interests me. The E in UNESCO is education. S for science, and C for culture.«

Helle Porsdam functions as a kind of link between UCPH and UNESCO.

»I don’t have any particular responsibilities or tasks. I get to shape the role myself. But I work very actively with the Danish permanent delegation to UNESCO and with chairs from other universities.«

Helle Porsdam has been active in the seven years that have passed since she got the title.

»I’ve written about all of them,« she says, referring to the cultural rights. During our conversation, she stops several times to search through her bookcase until her index finger lands on the right book cover. Finally, there are three Helle Porsdam-authored titles on the table between us: The Right to Science, the Transforming Power of Cultural Rights and Science as a Cultural Human Right.

In addition to her research, Helle Porsdam has set up summer courses, held lectures, and participated in UNESCO conferences. All with a focus on cultural human rights.

READ ALSO: New report: Danish universities falling behind on democracy and freedom of research

An overlooked right


Born 1956

Professor of History and Cultural Rights at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Law (CIS) at UCPH

Teaches American culture and history at the SAXO Institute, Faculty of Humanities, and in law and humanities, the culture and history of human rights, and cultural rights at the Faculty of Law.

Appointed UNESCO Chair in 2017 as the third Dane ever, and the first at UCPH

PhD in American studies from Yale University in 1987

Doctor of Philosophy from University of Southern Denmark in 1999

Early in our conversation, Helle Porsdam explains how cultural rights have historically been overshadowed by civil, political, and economic rights.

»Because of disagreements in the United Nations that had their origin in the Cold War and decolonization, we ended up with two different conventions. One for civil and political rights, and one for economic, social and cultural rights. And it was very unfortunate that they were split up. Because since then, people have debated which of them is the most important. Most people in the United States would say that it is of course civil and political rights. In parts of Asia, it is economic rights and the right to development. But the official UN stance is that they are equally important, they are interdependent.«

One thing is what the United Nations says. It is another thing how the rights are perceived and used in reality.

»There are many who think that the convention on civil and political rights is the core of the human rights. The right not to be tortured, the right to vote, and so on. And if you are, actually, interested in the second convention, it is the economic and social rights that are in focus, and not the cultural rights. And if you are, actually, interested in cultural rights, then it is the right to participate in cultural life, and the cultural heritage issues that people are interested in, and not the right to science. So the right to science is often forgotten because people do not know that it’s there.«

In many parts of the world, a researcher can lose their life if they speak the truth

Professor Helle Porsdam

The unexploited potential of cultural rights is also felt by Helle Porsdam in her own life.

»It is, of course, the University of Copenhagen’s Chair, and they could use it a lot more actively than they do. I have tried to draw attention to this in various contexts. Also to the deans.«

Helle Porsdam has several ideas on how she would like to use her Chair platform:

»I am currently working on the role of science in society, academic freedom, misinformation, (mis)trust in experts and in the university. The right to science is extremely relevant today, and my UNESCO Chair could easily be used to make it more visible. I think that it’s a good time to talk about what science can and can’t do.«

READ ALSO: They want to start a movement: Bring back the joy in research

Limits to freedom of research

Helle Porsdam is also Denmark’s representative in Scholars at Risk Europe, which monitors academic freedom and researchers’ rights.

»In many parts of the world, a researcher can lose their life if they speak the truth,« says Helle Porsdam.

Things are not quite that bad in Denmark. There are a few sore points that the professor brings up, however:

»More and more research funding is coming from the private sector rather than from the public sector. Does this mean that there are strings attached? We have seen several Danish examples in recent years where it has required an extra effort to protect the truth when research is externally funded. Novo Nordisk, the Carlsberg Foundation — which funded me, the Augustinus Foundation, the Velux Foundation. All the big [Danish] foundations donate a lot of money to research, and we appreciate it. So long as the freedom of research is intact.«

READ ALSO: Danish academic freedom looks ‘OK’ on a global ranking. But it is mistaken

In the EU, also, there are more signs of mission-driven research agendas, says Helle Porsdam:

»The strategic research leads to closer links between research and its application, and that can be partly a good thing. But it should not be at the expense of basic research. There are many examples of knowledge that was initially basic research that was then applied 50 years later. Niels Bohr’s contribution to quantum mechanics is a shining example of how difficult it can be to focus on what’s needed in the here and now. The best research has been driven by interest, not political strategy.«

Helle Porsdam also views social media as limiting freedom of research:

»Political correctness can also be a problem. You can be chastised on social media for uttering scientific statements of fact. We have to communicate, and it is stated in the Danish legislation on universities, but it can come at a great cost. On the one hand it can be very time-consuming. On the other hand, you can end up in some rather unpleasant debates where you are bawled out on social media. Many refrain from participating because they do not want to expose themselves to it. And it harms everyone, when knowledge is not put to use. The research is financed by the taxpayer. They have a right to know what is going on.«

READ ALSO: Prorector: »It would be a good idea to have academic freedom written into the Danish University Act«

The climate activists’ best argument

According to Porsdam, one reason why science is a human right is the concept of dual use, which means that scientific achievements can be used in both good and bad faith. And here Niels Bohr comes into the picture again.

The best research has been driven by interest, not political strategy

Professor Helle Porsdam

»The best example is probably nuclear power. It can be used for something good, but it can also become a bomb that can destroy humanity. In fact, the invention of the atomic bomb was one of the reasons why the S, that is, the science, was included in UNESCO,« says Porsdam and continues:

»Niels Bohr attempted already during World War II to get Churchill and Roosevelt to inform the Soviet Union about the development of the atomic bomb, but without success. In 1950, he wrote an open letter to the United Nations calling for an open world in which scientific and technical knowledge would be shared between nations. From a human rights perspective, science should be used as a public good.«

The argument that everyone should benefit from scientific progress can also be used in a legal context, according to Helle Porsdam:

»In many climate cases, the right to science could be used as an argument in the convention on human rights. Young people say to politicians: You are failing in your responsibility and you are destroying our lives when you do not incorporate the existing evidence of climate change into your policies.«

The right to science is in this way relevant for everything from the individual professor’s freedom of research to the development of a global society.

»For me it seems as if human rights are the only ethical global discourse we have.«