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New guideline will enhance oversight of research in frontier fields

By ZHANG ZHIHAO | China Daily | Updated: 2022-03-24 07:47
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A staff member tests samples of the COVID-19 inactivated vaccine at a vaccine production plant of China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm) in Beijing, April 11, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

A new national guideline on research ethics and governance will enhance China's oversight of projects in frontier fields, including life sciences, medicine and artificial intelligence, aiming to ensure that scientific and technological progress serves the greater good of humankind, officials and experts said.

The guideline also demands that international research projects abide by the regulations of the participants' home countries and pass ethical reviews. Chinese authorities can organize experts to reevaluate international projects that have high ethical risks, it said.

On Sunday, the general offices of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the State Council, China's Cabinet, issued the country's first comprehensive guideline on enhancing governance over ethics in science and technology.

Xiang Libin, vice-minister of science and technology, said the current ethic governance system cannot keep up with China's rapid sci-tech growth, given how some of the country's cutting-edge scientific endeavors are exploring unchartered territories with many uncertainties.

"Science and technology is a double-edged sword," Xiang said. "Therefore, the guideline plays a key role in building consensus, improving public awareness on the importance of research ethics and governance, and mitigating ethical risks in scientific undertakings."

A key requirement of the guideline is that research ethics should be emphasized and upheld throughout the entire process of scientific research and technological development, Xiang said.

Managing sci-tech ethics in accordance with laws and regulations, swiftly and properly handling emerging ethical challenges, establishing a system of ethical standards based on Chinese characteristics, and enhancing international cooperation in sci-tech governance are also among the top objectives, he added.

Scientific activities should serve the greater good of humankind, respect human and animal rights, treat social groups from different backgrounds fairly and equally, properly prevent and manage ethical risks, and maintain openness and transparency during research, according to the guideline.

"No agency, organization or individual can conduct scientific activities that damage social, public, biological and ecological security, nor can they undermine the safety and well-being of people's lives, health and dignity," it said.

Universities are encouraged to bolster education about research ethics in undergraduate and graduate studies. Chinese authorities should guide universities, research institutions, medical agencies, social groups and companies to optimize their monitoring and early warning mechanisms to spot ethical risks.

Violators of research ethics will be investigated and punished in accordance with relevant laws and regulations, with measures ranging from revoking research grants and titles to banning offenders from conducting future studies.

In regard to ethical review of high-risk research, Dai Guoqing, director of the Department of Supervision and Scientific Integrity at the Ministry of Science and Technology, said there will be a multilayered review mechanism in which a proposal is not only required to pass a review by the ethical committee of the researchers' institution, but also several rounds of reviews by local regulatory agencies.

Feng Chujian, deputy director of the department, said the purpose of enhancing ethical oversight is to nip unethical experiments in the bud, so "ethical supervision should not be an afterthought, nor should it be a simplified or perfunctory process".

Zhai Xiaomei, a member of the National Science and Technology Ethics Committee, said the profound respect for the right to life and personal dignity highlighted in the guideline is in the same spirit that led to the creation of China's first Civil Code, which went into effect in January last year.

In the medical experiments, the rights of trial participants should be fully protected, including their right to privacy and the right to make informed decisions, Zhai said. "They should be treated fairly and justly, and not be forced to make a compromise due to their circumstances."

Zeng Yi, director of the International Research Center for AI Ethics and Governance at the Institute of Automation of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said the level of research ethics varies greatly among different scientific disciplines.

Artificial intelligence is one of the fields that sorely needs a comprehensive ethical review and oversight system, he said. "There is still a lot of room for improvements in AI ethics, especially those related to personal data and the user's right to know and choose, but this is also a global challenge."

A major takeaway from the guideline for Zeng is the requirement for international projects to pass ethical reviews in the participants' home countries. "This is a big deal because foreign researchers can no longer carry out studies in China that are deemed too ethically risky in their home countries," he added.

The release of the new guideline, along with the country's efforts to improve research ethics and governance in recent years, show that China has begun a systematic building of ethics in scientific activities, which will benefit the country's sci-tech development and open new areas for international cooperation, Zeng said.

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