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Need Help Solving World Problems? Call A Scientist

Courtesy of Mercer University
Dr. Jennifer Knaack, assistant professor at Mercer University College of Pharmacy in Georgia, conducts a press interview at the UN. She and another on-call scientist helped determine victims' wounds in Sudan were consistant with chemical weapons.

Behind the scenes of world conflict are scientists solving problems on behalf of human rights organizations. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has a program called On-call Scientist and it's still going strong after decades of success.

Cincinnati aerospace scientist Rai Menges, CEO of Aerospace Research Systems and Star Sailor Power, became a volunteer in the On-call Scientist program six or seven years ago. She expected to offer help in her field of satellites and communication. "They said, 'Really, we need to be able to protect people,' and I came from the intelligence community."

In working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) Menges became concerned about the way information was gathered to try and prove human rights abuses. She says they were using phones.

"I said, 'There are other ways of doing this.' When we trained inspectors to go into weapons facilities around the world we use methodologies to allow them to basically use a mental picture to collect information by observation," Menges pointed out.

In another instance, the NGO Menges was helping recruited people who lived in Syria, Iran and Iraq to gather information. "And they were communicating across platforms like Gmail and Hotmail and I said, 'You really can't do that. It's not secure.' "

She recommends more NGOs have full-time security staff, especially in places like Africa, the Middle East and now the Philippines.

Twelve-hundred volunteers in 65 countries are part of the On-call Scientist program. It started decades ago according to AAAS Project Director Theresa Harris. "We started back in the '80s connecting human rights activists in Argentina with forensic anthropologists and DNA experts to help identify people who had disappeared and connect them with their relatives."

The program continued into the '90s and 2000s as human rights groups looked to prove the existence of genocide by analyzing satellite imagery.

Harris says more scientist volunteers are needed, including environmental researchers.

With more than 30 years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market, Ann Thompson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology.