Chinese, U.S. Science Scholars and Educators Plan Joint Projects in Ethics Education

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA—China has an ancient scientific culture and its ethical values date 2500 years to Confucius, while the United States has been a leader in shaping research ethics over the past 30 years. But when scholars and educators from the two nations met recently, they quickly found common ground: A range of problems—from a lack of understanding to fierce competition and fear of failure—are contributing to chronic high rates of unethical research conduct.

Li Jinghai

Li Jinghai

During a three-day workshop organized by the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST) and AAAS, the two delegations found that they had much to learn from each other. They agreed to explore the possibility of joint projects related to education in science ethics, including surveys on misconduct; exchanges on training ethics educators; a collection of case studies; and perhaps even a practical guidebook on ethics in science.

Li Jinghai, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and vice-chair of CAST’s Commission on Ethics and Rights of Scientists and Engineers, said in a keynote address that scientists have an ethical obligation to make the innovation system more efficient so that it benefits more people. “We have a duty to minimize the negative effects and maximize the positive effects [of scientific research],” Li said.

Alan I. Leshner

Alan I. Leshner

AAAS Chief Executive Officer Alan I. Leshner said the meeting had “tremendous symbolic value” given the role of the United States and China as global leaders in addressing health, energy, climate, and other challenges. “We won’t be taken seriously if we don’t have credibility,” said Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of Science. “And our credibility depends on our ability to behave at the highest level ethically.”

Over the course of the meetings, top science policy officials, educators and ethics scholars explored a range of topics—the history of science ethics in each country, ambitious new efforts by Chinese science leaders to bring ethics instruction into undergraduate teaching, and the potential of both formal and informal education to improve the ethics environment.

“What we heard from these very thoughtful representatives of China were perspectives that were very different than anything we have here,” said Michael Kalichman, director of the University of California-San Diego (UCSD) Research Ethics Program. “They showed us new ways of thinking about these issues.”

Mark S. Frankel

Mark S. Frankel

The AAAS workshop organizing effort was led by Mark S. Frankel, director of the Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program, and Tom Wang, director for International Cooperation and deputy director of the Center for Science Diplomacy; the event was hosted by the University of California-San Diego (UCSD) and the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center.

The workshop was the latest engagement in the deepening relationship between the science and engineering communities in China and the United States. It was the outgrowth of a September 2007 trip to Beijing by Leshner and a AAAS-organized delegation for a workshop on scientists’ ethical and social responsibilities; in other meetings during that visit, AAAS and Chinese science and engineering leaders agreed to joint publishing and education projects and pledged to seek additional collaboration.

In San Diego, nine Chinese science and education leaders, including several high-ranking CAST representatives and one university president, held detailed talks with 14 U.S. colleagues, including some of the nation’s leading scholars on science ethics and research integrity. Most of the Chinese are members of the CAST Commission on Ethics and Rights of Scientists and Engineers.

The talks made clear that both nations see science and technology as crucial to global prosperity and security—and that both are grappling with a significant incidence of ethics violations, both serious research misconduct and lesser offenses against research ethics.

“As two major research countries, China and the US have a great deal to gain from working closely with each other,” said Nicholas Steneck, a consultant to the Office of Research Integrity in the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and a member of the AAAS Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility. “As we work together more closely, it is essential that we understand expectations for responsible practice… The workshop opened up lines of communication that will hopefully lead to better training in both countries in the future.”

The Roots of Ethical Culture

Despite their shared experience, some fundamental differences between the two nations emerged in sharp relief at the workshop.

American research ethics have taken their current form largely over the past 30 years, driven by educators and science societies, government regulations, and changes in the law. Many universities feature ethics programs, and there are strong collections of online materials. The approach is pragmatic; solutions have evolved in response to problems.

The Chinese interest in the responsible conduct of science has gained momentum in recent years as the nation has invested heavily in research and development and science and engineering education. But in their presentations, several of the Chinese scholars offered holistic views of the role of ethics and the meaning of integrity in Chinese society.

Gong Ke

Gong Ke

Tainjin University, one of the biggest multi-disciplinary engineering universities in China, has a motto: “Seeking Truth from Facts.” The motto is a genuine expression of the school’s values, said Tainjin President Gong Ke, and other schools have similar mottos.

Such values may have their roots in the teaching of Confucius, which have shaped China and endured through the shifting tides of history. Love, respect, loyalty, and propriety are elemental values of Confucianism, said Yan Chun-Hua, director of the State Key Laboratory of Rare Earth Materials, Chemistry and Applications at Peking University. As a moral code, Yan said, it gives rise to the values of “filial piety” and loyalty to country.

Zhang Ze

Zhang Ze

Zhang Ze, vice president of the Beijing Institute of Technology and a member of the standing committee that helps oversee CAST, described research integrity as an element in the overall “academic ecology.” He cited a metaphor offered by another influential Chinese scientist, Zhang Kaixun, a former vice president of the Chinese Association of Inventions:

Technology which benefits humans is a red apple; science is the tree bearing the apple; education is the soil, fertilizer and water nourish the tree; culture is combination of proper temperature and sunshine essential to the tree’s survival.

Today, Zhang Ze told the workshop, China’s academic ecology is out of balance. The effect is evident in the incidence of padded résumés, plagiarism, falsified data, and in occasional lapses in care of research animals and in gaining informed consent from human research subjects. A climate of “academic corruption” is characterized by the exchange of favors and for-profit research, Zhang said, while researchers seek publication of or research with little new or significant advancement of knowledge.

In some areas, there is “an imbalance between the strain of freedom and the strain of restriction,” he added. “The channel of free and equal academic exchange is not clear and smooth.”

Several Americans at the workshop noted that their science culture has dealt with—and continues to deal with—many of the same problems.

Research Misconduct: How Widespread?

Melissa Anderson

Melissa Anderson

Melissa Anderson, director of the Post-Secondary Education Research Institute at the University of Minnesota, has done research over the past 20 years on research integrity and misconduct; she and her colleagues have produced the first—and thus far only—national survey to estimate the rates of misconduct and questionable research practices.

When she surveyed researchers on their own behavior, she found that an estimated 24% of mid-career U.S. scientists per year reported that they engaged in questionable use of funds, with nearly as many cutting corners in their research practices. Some 18% per year reported problems with outside influence, including hidden conflicts of interest. Ten percent or more reported that they had committed questionable practices in research policy, research methods, and peer review.

Wang Chunfa, director-general of CAST’s Department of Policy Studies and Publicity, cited a survey of 30,000 Chinese researchers in which 40% described misconduct as “very common” in China. Over 50% reported that misconduct “surrounds them,” Wang said, and more than 30% expressed sympathy with misconduct. Over 50% said they had never received education in research ethics.

Several of the Chinese speakers made pointed criticism of research misconduct in their country. “Even if the environment is not ideal and even though we have to improve it, the science environment is not an excuse for scientific misconduct,” Gong said.

Michael Kalichman

Michael Kalichman

Kalichman, one of the organizers of the workshop, noted that in the United States, the reported incidence of misconduct and questionable behavior was essentially unchanged in the past three decades, despite the efforts of educators and professional societies.

“We have in a sense failed if we haven’t changed those numbers,” he said. But he, too, suggested that a systemic view was necessary: “Do we think of research misconduct as a disease, or do we think of it as a symptom?”

Stress on Success, Fear of Failure

In the early 1970s, a medical researcher at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York said that in his work on transplantation immunology, he had successfully transplanted skin from black mice onto the backs of white mice. However on close inspection, the researcher’s colleagues noticed that the black patches had been drawn onto the backs of the mice with a marker.

But on close inspection, the researcher’s colleagues noticed that the black patches had been drawn onto the white mice with a marker.

In recounting the story at the CAST/AAAS workshop, Kalichman noted that the researcher reported that working in a climate of intense pressure, with a crushing workload, had left him physically and mentally exhausted. The stress was directly implicated in the fraud.

Other speakers said that, both in the United States and China, researchers still experience such pressure. When universities, businesses, or societies invest in research, they expect results, and those expectations can exert an intense gravity in the lab. And when public research holds potentially enormous financial value for private business, the pressure grows.

In the United States, government researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and academic researchers funded by NIH have been in the news in recent years because of allegations that they improperly accepted money from medical and pharmaceutical interests. In China, Gong said, “with the fast growth of the market economy, universities have more and more merged into the commercial activities… [and] misconduct of scientific research or scientific dishonesty has become an essential challenge.”

Leshner, the AAAS chief executive officer, described a more fundamental problem: Failure doesn’t get published, and it doesn’t win tenure for young researchers, but it is central to the process of discovery. And the pressure for success overshadows that fact.

“We need to find a way to teach our students… that failure is part of science,” he told he workshop. “Failure is a part of the progression of science.”

The Challenge of Teaching Ethics

In their daily work, many of the workshop participants are directly involved in shaping and advancing education on the responsible conduct of scientific research. At the workshop, too, the central focus was on ethics education. What courses and curricula can best train young scientists? What sorts of informal education can make important contributions?

China has made a broad commitment to discouraging misconduct and improving its research culture in recent years. Incidents of misconduct that might have been ignored or handled quietly in the past are now addressed more forcefully, sometimes with firings and coverage on government broadcast channels. CAST, along with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Engineering, along with the government’s Ministry of Science and Technology and Ministry of Education, are all part of a coordinating group on research ethics and integrity.

Universities, too, are giving ethics a higher profile in the education and training of young scientists and engineers.

Yan, the State Key Lab director, also serves as a professor in the College of Chemistry and Molecular Engineering at Peking University. He described an academic reorientation of the university in 2001 that included strong ethical components. Now there are more liberal arts courses and more freedom for students to choose a major. There’s a mentorship program. Where past teaching has focused on how humans can overcome and dominate nature, now the emphasis is on harmony with nature. There’s new stress on the welfare of lab animals.

“We let them know an animal is also a life,” Yan said.

Other Chinese universities have added new ethics courses, often aimed at graduate students, speakers said. But Gong, the president of Tainjin University, said the university has undertaken an effort to make ethics a part of the curriculum, and the environment, at every level.

The decision was driven in part by misconduct that seemed to be spreading from the graduate level to undergraduates. From 2006 to 2009, Tianjin punished 71 undergrads for offenses on examinations, with penalties ranging from admonitions and probation to expulsion.

This year, Gong said, Tianjin has introduced an ambitious course on scientific ethics for undergraduates—a four-year course that stresses best practices and case studies over theoretical analysis. Though the course counts for only one credit, Gong explained, it has a heavy bearing on a student’s final assessment.

Members of the American delegation clearly were impressed by this level of Chinese commitment to ethics education. But they raised questions, too: Is Tainjin typical, or an exception? And given a freshman class of 2000 students, where will the university find the teachers?

Tainjin is probably more ambitious than most universities, Gong replied. He acknowledged the need for of teachers is “a very big problem,” explaining that the university is using higher-level students to teach research ethics to their younger colleagues.

But, Kalichman interjected, “this is not just an issue for China—it is an issue for us, too.”

Indeed, some members of the U.S. delegation seemed to see their nation’s experience reflected in the Chinese experience.

Elizabeth Heitman

Elizabeth Heitman

Elizabeth Heitman, an associate professor of medical ethics at Vanderbilt University Medical School, said that education in research ethics is far from consistent among universities in the United States. An example: Last year, she and Vanderbilt student Daniel Israel conducted a survey on education in research ethics at 60 major U.S. research universities. Despite strong follow-up efforts, they received only 25 responses. At a number of the schools, they were unable to find who, if anyone, was responsible for education in research ethics.

“Many institutions have a patchwork quilt—a little of this, a little of that,” Heitman said. “Sometimes there’s a recognizable pattern. Sometimes it’s just patches.”

Kalichman questioned whether conventional ethics education, by itself, could ever have the desired effect. The evidence suggests that it isn’t enough “to simply tell scientists that it’s wrong to lie, cheat, and steal,” he said.

One session at the workshop focused on the potential value of informal education in cultivating improved ethics, with much of the discussion devoted to the importance of mentors in conveying values to a new generation. It was on this issue that the greatest gap appeared between the two delegations. To some of the Chinese, it seemed an unfamiliar concept—in a Confucian culture, they suggested, young people are schooled to respect their elders and their superiors, and to learn practices and values simply by following the examples set by their teachers and advisers.

Several of the Americans suggested that mentors and other sorts of informal education may help infuse the culture with ethics awareness in a way not possible in the classroom.

“It’s very important to have it in your environment…all the time, because the influence just emanates into the institution,” said Stanley G. Korenman, M.D., Associate Dean for Ethics and director of the Ethics and Regulatory Knowledge of the CTSA Program at the University of California-Los Angeles School of Medicine.

Added Kalichman: “We should be training scientists and preparing scientists so that they can ask questions and know where to go and what to do if they believe something is wrong…. We need to create an environment where people are talking about what it means to apply ethics in conducting research.”

The Next Step—Cooperation

Throughout the three days of the workshop, participants discussed an array of possible joint projects, and both delegations expressed a strong desire to work together on ethics education efforts that could have a tangible impact in each country.

Sun Mengxin, deputy director-general of CAST’s Department of International Affairs and one of the key-organizers of the workshop, said “it might be possible for our two organizations to join hands to develop a guidebook for students, and for scientists and researchers alike.”

The book should stress practical advice rather than theoretical discussion, Sun said. Such a book could include case studies and best practices in both countries, and could point to other resources, workshop participants said.

To explore these ideas, CAST and AAAS plan to establish a steering committee that would include experts from both nations. The committee also could serve to encourage other U.S.-Chinese engagement on research ethics.

“I have been touched by the high caliber of participation and the high quality of discussion,” Sun said as the meeting closed. “It is a very helpful dialogue that will contribute to understanding each other better.”

Frankel, who worked closely with Sun in organizing the event, shared that sentiment. “If the ideas and energy exchanged at this workshop can be applied to specific collaborative projects, then there will be much to look forward to by way of products that will aid the scientific communities in both countries.”