Beijing Conference Explores Causes—and Solutions—for Global S&T Ethics Challenge

BEIJING—With the world growing smaller and the research enterprise of individual nations growing increasingly inter-dependent, ethics and policy experts from the United States convened here with their Chinese counterparts to discuss common problems and solutions to issues of scientific ethics and social responsibility.

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Han Qide (left), president of China Assocation for Science and Technology (CAST); Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS; Du Xiangwan, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Engineering; and Mark S. Frankel, director of AAAS’s Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program, during the opening session of the “China-U.S. Workshop on Scientists’ Social and Ethical Responsibilities”

At the two-day conference, organized by the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST) and AAAS, S&T leaders expressed support for the development of common standards and practices, and pledged to seek further opportunities to collaborate on ethics and integrity issues.

See other stories about the landmark AAAS visit to China here and here.

See photos from the bilateral meetings and the Workshop on Scientists’ Social and Ethical Responsibilities.

Read this article in Chinese.

Song Nanping, a CAST executive secretary

Song Nanping, a CAST executive secretary

“Compared with developed countries, we still have a long way to go,” said Song Nanping, a CAST executive secretary. “We have made a lot of efforts to enhance the climate of science integrity…. We want to send a message to the whole world that it is our purpose to promote the development of ethics and scientific integrity.”

The conference was “tremendously important” and a “signal to the rest of the global scientific community about our seriousness and the seriousness of the issues before us,” said Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS. “As science becomes more global, it’s important to have agreement among all countries so that we share not only common values, but common procedures and standards as well.”

A AAAS delegation led by Leshner participated in the conference as part of a six-day visit to China that also included meetings with Chinese S&T leaders and the signing of three cooperative agreements that are expected to pave the way for future projects on issues ranging from science education to sustainable development to increasing opportunities for women in science and engineering. And at the conclusion of the conference, many delegates urged further collaborations that could include ethics education and joint case studies to evaluate possible responses to specific problems.

Shen Wenqing, vice president of the National Natural Science Foundation of China

Shen Wenqing, vice president of the National Natural Science Foundation of China

The AAAS delegation met with Chinese Minister of Science and Technology Wan Gang; Deng Nan, chief executive director of CAST; Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) President Lu Yongxiang; Shen Wenqing, chairman of the Shanghai Association for Science and Technology and vice president of the National Natural Science Foundation of China; and Yang Wei, president of Zhejiang University in Hangzhou.

The AAAS delegation included Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of the journal Science; Vaughan Turekian, AAAS chief international officer; and Tom Wang, AAAS director for International Cooperation. Mark S. Frankel, director of AAAS’s Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program, played a lead organizing role and made a presentation at the conference which resulted from discussions originally started by the AAAS Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility.

The event—”China-U.S. Workshop on Scientists’ Social and Ethical Responsibilities”—brought dozens of Chinese science and technology leaders together with the AAAS delegation and nine other U.S. ethics scholars, business and academic leaders, and science publishing experts. Brent Christensen, science counselor to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, also attended the conference.

Like other science leaders from both countries, S&T Minister Wan stressed the importance of the conference on ethics and integrity during a private, hour-long meeting with the AAAS delegation. “Integrity is an important issue that goes along with the development of science,” he said through an interpreter.

The new agreements and the conference on scientific integrity—resulting from months of trans-Pacific engagement and negotiation—are landmarks in an ambitious new engagement between AAAS and Chinese S&T organizations. The journal Science, which is published by AAAS, is opening its first Chinese news office in Beijing this month, to be staffed by veteran correspondent Richard Stone. EurekAlert!, AAAS’s science news service, this month formally debuted a new Chinese-language portal to serve the nation’s journalists, researchers, business and government.

“We are in an era of unprecedented global cooperation in science and technology—cooperation that not only advances the underlying sciences, but also addresses some of the major global challenges that we all face,” Turekian said. “The collaboration between Chinese and U.S. scientists, and in fact all members of the global science enterprise, will lead to more creative science and technological developments that will improve people’s lives.”

The new engagement comes at a time of remarkable growth and emergence for China. Long before the modern era, it achieved historic breakthroughs in astronomy, medicine, mathematics, and technology. Today, following 30 years of reform, its economy is soaring. President Hu Jintao, trained as a hydraulic engineer, has made

science and technology central to China’s long-term growth and development plans—and to addressing complex economic, environmental and international challenges.

China launched its first manned space mission in 2003, and followed up on 24 October by sending its first spacecraft to orbit the moon. Internet use is booming; the China Internet Network Information Center recently reported that, in the first half of this year, an average of 100 new residents per minute logged on for the first time.

Meanwhile, the government is investing heavily in new laboratory and research facilities.

According to CAST statistics, China’s total investment in research and development nearly tripled between 2000 through 2005; in the same period, R&D expenditures as a percentage of gross domestic expenditures rose from 0.9% to 1.34%. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, the number of people working in R&D fields increased by 33% from 2000 through 2004.

A report in 2006 by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) called the R&D spending increases “unprecedented for any country in recent memory.”

In meetings and at the conference, Chinese officials acknowledged that the growth had also produced growing pains, including incidents of misconduct and ethical lapses. One speaker cited the case of a researcher who claimed credit for developing an advanced computer chip; later, it was discovered to be a chip produced in the United States. Other speakers cited university departments where professors fear that their colleagues will steal their research results, or students who falsify their résumés.

Several Chinese S&T officials blamed the pattern on society’s heightened expectations and the intensifying competition in research and business. Wan underscored that point in a discussion with the AAAS delegation.

Researchers are making great progress in energy, information technology, nanotechnology and environmental protection, he said, and the time required to turn breakthroughs into useful, profitable products is getting shorter and shorter. That creates “great pressure” on researchers and their supervisors to succeed, Wan explained.

He counseled that science and societies must define success more broadly than major breakthroughs and profitable discoveries. “If scientists can prove they are dedicated to their research,” he said, “even if they do not get the expected results, still, we should celebrate their achievements.”

Qian Yi, a professor and environmental scientist at Tsinghua University

Qian Yi, a professor and environmental scientist at Tsinghua University

Qian Yi, a professor and environmental scientist at Tsinghua University, during the conference described several cases in which advanced students were caught in violations—falsifying a C.V., falsely claiming authorship of a paper, theft of research data. In one case, she said, an accomplished young scholar committed an infraction because he was competing for a major academic prize. “He was trying to make himself perfect,” she said.

Scholars and science policy experts among the U.S. representatives found the problems remarkably similar to those at home. In their presentations, they described various episodes, including researchers manipulating photographic evidence for research publications. Leshner, in the meeting with Wan and his staff at the Ministry of Science and Technology, described the “great problems” caused when Science published two apparently ground-breaking papers on stem cell research in 2004 and 2005, only to learn later that much of the data had been fabricated.

Nicholas H. Steneck, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan and a consultant to the U.S. Office of Research Integrity, said in a conference presentation that the United States has tightened ethical regulations progressively since the 1960s. That decade, he said, brought new guidelines for research with animals. Succeeding decades brought new regulations on the ethical use of humans in research; research misconduct; conflict of interest; and data-sharing, security and training.

While government, universities and other U.S. institutions have responded aggressively to misconduct, he said, problems persist across all stages of the research process. “Studies have reported that one in 10 researchers or more misrepresent research in abstracts, double-publish articles, ignore provisions of institutional review board protocols, and violate other standards of conduct,” Steneck said. In particular, he noted 10-20% misrepresentation rates in publications listed on applications for residencies and research fellowships in six medical specialties. He called under-reporting of misconduct such as falsification, fabrication and plagiarism a “significant” shortcoming, adding that 90% or more of such cases may escape investigation.

Frankel, in his presentation, cited scientific and other professional organizations as important players in establishing an environment to support integrity. In a 2000 survey he helped to conduct, 68% of the 39 scientific societies that responded said they had adopted a statement on ethics or a code of conduct.

“Scientific societies are a type of social structure that defines the expected character and behavior of its members,” Frankel said. “The values and standards of proper behavior for the practice of science embraced by these societies serve as guides by which individual scientists perform their work and by which outsiders can understand and judge their performance.”

Frankel’s remark underscored a point made repeatedly at the conference by both Chinese and Americans: Cultivating a broader sense of social responsibility in scientists is essential for encouraging ethical behavior.

The very nature of scientific and engineering professions gives the research community a special responsibility, said Du Xiangwan, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

“Thinking freely… and a free academic environment are essential for innovation and flourishing development [of science and technology],” Du said. But “academic freedom is accompanied by social responsibility…. The value of science is seeking truth and benefiting humankind.

“Being eager for quick success and instant benefits and pursuing fame alone will impair the quality of research” and runs counter to scientific responsibilities, he added.

Chen Sai-juan (left), vice chair of CAST; Laurel Baldwin-Ragaven, Henry R. Luce Professor of Health and Human Rights at Trinity College; and Shen Wenqing, vice president of National Natural Science Foundation of China

Chen Sai-juan (left), vice chair of CAST; Laurel Baldwin-Ragaven, Henry R. Luce Professor of Health and Human Rights at Trinity College; and Shen Wenqing, vice president of National Natural Science Foundation of China

Laurel Baldwin-Ragaven, the Henry R. Luce Professor of Health and Human Rights at Trinity College in Connecticut, agreed that researchers have a social responsibility. Because the social and economic context for their work is constantly evolving, researchers can be faced with difficult choices—she likened it to “walking a tightrope.” But when they lose sight of their accountability to humanity, the loss of balance can be profoundly harmful to society and to science.

In her conference presentation, Baldwin-Ragaven cited the infamous Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, undertaken by the U.S. Public Health Service, in which hundreds of poor and mostly illiterate African-American sharecroppers were denied treatment for the venereal disease between 1932 and 1972. She also cited the involvement of scientists and the manipulation of research data to obscure the health threats posed by cigarettes.

Social responsibility also extends to public education and engagement, said Zhang Xiaolin, executive director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ National Science Library. “If the public doesn’t understand what you’re doing,” he asked, “… how can you expect people to give you support out of their own rice bowls for future work?

Leshner, in a keynote address at the conference, extended that view a step further. In the United States, he said, “we’re having some serious problems in the relationship between science and society.”

Reports of scientific misconduct and conflict of interest and questions about the use of animal and human subjects in research help to undermine public support for science, he said. But increasingly, Leshner added, research initiatives in fields such as stem cell research and cloning are coming into conflict with core values held by many people.

Education is important, Leshner said. But “it’s not enough to communicate to the public. We need to communicate with the public. We need to spend more time listening to the public.”

Officials at CAST, CAS, and the Ministry of Science Technology all said they had moved in recent years to create or expand ethics offices and to spell out tougher regulations on misconduct.

Shen Wenqing, vice president of the National Natural Science Foundation of China, said his organization created an ethics panel in 1998. From that year through 2004, he said, the committee received an average of 92 complaints a year and averaged about nine enforcement actions. In 2006, he said, 150 complaints generated 50 disciplinary actions.

In addition, Shen said, the foundation has held meetings on misconduct issues in China and abroad with groups from the United States, Germany, Great Britain, Finland and other countries.

Once the conference had closed, members of the U.S. group said they had come away with compelling new insights into China—and into common experiences shared by both countries. Officials on both sides called for further collaboration on ethics and integrity issues, and additional research data to guide future efforts.

The conference demonstrated that integrity “has been recognized as a key national issue by the highest level of the Chinese science communities,” said William Y. Chang, director of the U.S. NSF Beijing office.

Huang Baiyun, President of China's Central South University and CAST vice chairman, discusses a point with speaker Michael Kalichman, director of the Research Ethics Program at the University of California-San Diego

Huang Baiyun, President of China’s Central South University and CAST vice chairman, discusses a point with speaker Michael Kalichman, director of the Research Ethics Program at the University of California-San Diego

Michael Kalichman, director of the Research Ethics Program at the University of California-San Diego, called the conference “a necessary first step” that would help develop a shared understanding of ethical responsibilities.

“The likely next steps will be conversations to better articulate the outcomes we desire for research ethics and the means by which we can best achieve those outcomes,” Kalichman said. “The results of these discussions are likely to benefit not only China and the U.S., but the entire international research community.”

See a slideshow of photos from the bilateral meetings and the Workshop on Scientists’ Social and Ethical Responsibilities

Edward W. Lempinen

22 October 2007