Research ethics rises up national political agenda

Research ethics is rising up the political agenda in China as enhancing ethical oversight in science emerged as a key topic at the annual meetings of China's top legislative and advisory bodies this week.

China’s political leaders are recognising the importance of ethical research to protect the country’s global reputation in science and for continued international research collaborations in the wake of a recent scandal over gene-edited babies.

In a speech this week on the government’s work report to the annual session of China’s law-making body the National People’s Congress (NPC), Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said the government must “strengthen scientific ethics and research attitudes, punish academic misconduct and refrain from hasty and thoughtless [research]”.

At the same time the CEOs of two of China’s technology companies submitted proposals to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a consultative body which also includes business leaders, on strengthening research ethics.

Pony Ma, head of the internet giant Tencent, and Robin Li of Baidu called on the government to regulate new technologies.

Baidu’s Li also called for China to participate in the global dialogue on ethics in the use of artificial intelligence (AI). “The discussion of AI ethics in China has just started and has not yet formed a broad consensus,” Li said in his proposal to the CPPCC .

The CPPCC and NPC annual meetings kicked off on 4 March in what is known as the ‘joint sessions’ of the political and consultative bodies.

Li, who acknowledged that AI’s rapid advance has sparked concerns among the Chinese public, including privacy and ethical concerns, presented three proposals for future legislation on AI, including expanding research on AI ethics, improving the regulation of electronic medical records and the use of AI to regulate city traffic.

Enhancing ethics oversight and regulation

Since the gene-edited babies scandal emerged late last year, government officials including Premier Li and government bodies including Guangdong's provincial government – the province where the gene-edited babies research was carried out – have stressed the importance of curbing unethical practices in research, and said failure to comply would lead to a withdrawal of National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) research funds for three to five years.

"China is paying unprecedented attention to enhancing ethical oversight in science, and I'm sure it will improve in the future," said Zhai Xiaomei, executive director of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences' research centre for bioethics.

"But how fast it can improve ultimately depends on the critical will of the decision-makers," she added in remarks carried by official media last month. Zhai acknowledged recently that China’s ethics guidelines and regulations relating to biomedical research involving humans are behind those found in developed countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom.

In late January, the Ministry of Science and Technology and Ministry of Finance issued a joint document urging scientists and research institutes to enhance ethics oversight and regulation and establish regulatory committees to ensure ethical practices in research.

New biomedical rules

But it is in the biomedical sector that things have moved swiftly after the gene-edited babies scandal.

In advance of the joint sessions, China’s National Health Commission under the Ministry of Health on 26 February issued draft national-level regulations that high-risk biomedical procedures and gene editing of any type of cell in humans will require the commission’s approval, with strong penalties for using unapproved technologies.

Existing regulations prohibit gene editing in human embryos that will be used for reproduction, but there are no penalties for breaking the rules.

Other high-risk procedures requiring National Health Commission approval under the new draft regulation include other types of gene modification, stem-cell research, mitochondrial replacement, use of cells from other animal species or synthetic genetic material in humans, and other research projects with unpredictable and risky outcomes.

The new draft national regulations, currently at the public consultation stage, state that unapproved use of these technologies could break existing national laws, which could lead to criminal charges.

Yet to be defined low- to medium-risk research will only need approval at the provincial government levels, however.

The unveiling of the proposed new regulations was followed by the announcement a week later of a new national ethics committee for biomedical research.

Reduced trust

Caroline Wagner, an associate professor at Ohio State University in the US specialising in science and technology policy with a particular focus on international collaborations, said the gene-edited babies scandal had reduced international trust in science collaboration with China.

“The [Chinese] health ministry statement is maybe what is needed to restore trust” in Chinese research, she told University World News. “But without a clear structure within the institutions themselves to self-monitor right through the [ethics] review boards and without any kind of follow-up sanctions for breaking the rules, one cannot say [it will work].”

Zhai has also acknowledged recently that a key reason for the lax oversight is a lack of ethics review boards in China, both in number and capability, which are often staffed by scholars who are not experts in bioethics.

According to a China Association for Science and Technology survey last year of 324 institutions, 87.5% of medical and health institutions have ethics regulatory bodies, such as an ethics review board. But only 17.6% of universities had such a review board.

Ethics in other fields of research

Chinese researchers are also working on ethical issues pertaining to neuroscience research, with Chinese experts recommending that China should adhere to international ethical guidelines and actively participate in the formation of international ethics rules on neuroscience, or risk breakthroughs being seen as untrustworthy.

In January the state-level Chinese Association for Artificial Intelligence also set up a committee of scientists, industry, legal and sociology experts to draft new national guidelines on AI ethics, headed by Chen Xiaoping, director of the Robotics Laboratory at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, Anhui province, who developed China’s first humanoid robot known as Jia Jia.

Chen recently noted a surge in interest in ethical issues in the wake of the gene-edited babies scandal. “But AI is different from gene editing in the way that the risks of AI are mostly in the applications, not in the technology itself,” Chen said.

“We can take preventive measures to avoid going in a certain direction or take measures to control the risks.”

Others are calling for big data guidelines for ethical use in China, not known for respecting privacy. This comes amid a growing concern on the Chinese mainland over use of data, particularly its impact on the country’s social credit system.

Guidelines lagging behind scientific progress

Li Zhenzhen, a science ethics expert and researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Science and Development, said: "Legal and ethical regulations can't keep up with the rapid progress China is making in some scientific fields", adding that genetics, biosciences and artificial intelligence are examples of high-tech fields that sorely need stronger ethics oversight.

Li was quoted in official media as saying that insufficient oversight would tarnish China's image in the eyes of the global scientific community, create misunderstandings and mistrust between Chinese and foreign scientists and fuel the stereotype that China's frequent breakthroughs in biosciences are the result of a system in which ethics rules are not holding it back.

"These notions are very detrimental to China's scientific development and international cooperation, especially when many cutting-edge sciences now require global collaboration to advance," she said.

Ohio State University’s Wagner said the international nature of science means China is coming into a different world compared to what other scientifically advanced countries such as South Korea did over a decade ago.

“Previously you could work at a national level and build up some pretty high-level [science and technology] capacity before joining the global system. China does not have that luxury; science is already a global system and they have to join that system.”

“If they want to be at the forefront globally, they will have to play by the rules,” she noted, adding that an inability to adhere to international ethical norms will mean that China will harm itself by harming its collaboration internationally. “People aren’t going to want to work with them,” she said.