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Ethics body set to improve oversight of tech

China Daily,August 22, 2019 Adjust font size:

The establishment of a national ethics committee on science and technology will improve supervision and ensure they develop along the right path, experts said.

"There have long been calls to set up a top-level ethics committee to enable unified supervision of scientific research," said Zhai Xiaomei, deputy director of the National Health Commission's Expert Committee on Medical Science Ethics.

China announced a plan to establish a national science and technology ethics committee on July 24, but details have not been released. It would be tasked with promoting effective supervision and regulation of the sector, including legislation on ethical supervision.

The rapid development of science and technology in China, including life sciences and artificial intelligence, had created an urgent need for the establishment of a top-level body with overarching responsibilities to ensure effective ethical supervision of different sectors, said Zhai, who is also director of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences' Life Ethics Research Center.

Different government departments had different regulations and standards on ethical supervision, resulting in supervisory loopholes in many scientific research projects, she said.

"Following the establishment of the committee, much detailed work will need to be done to ensure it can effectively perform its duties," Zhai said.

The new committee may have similar functions to national ethics committees in countries such as the United States and United Kingdom that supervise the application of controversial technologies, she said.

Ethical violations in scientific research exposed by the media in recent years have sparked calls for greater regulation of the sector. A recent case involved He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist who announced he had altered the genes of two babies to make them immune to HIV. Following the announcement, hundreds of Chinese scientists condemned the experiment and questioned the safety and effectiveness of the procedure.

In the wake of He's case, four leading ethics scholars in China, including Zhai, jointly published an article in the journal Nature in May urging government authorities to intensify supervision of scientific research, including issuing clearer rules and regulations and handing down severe punishment, to reduce the chances of the unethical use of biomedical technologies involving gene editing and stem cells.

Huang Song, vice-president of the National Institute of Biological Sciences in Beijing, said establishing the committee could unify ethical standards in scientific research.

"It is important to specify the responsibilities of all participants involved in a project, so all culprits get their due punishment," he said.

Zhai said ethical issues in science and technology were important because the development of highly risky technologies such as brain science and artificial intelligence could affect the future of humanity.

"For example, the latest biological technologies such as gene editing can produce cross-generational effects and unpredictable results for our offspring," she said. "We must be cautious about giving a certain scientist the right to make such alterations at will in the name of curing a serious disease.

"Ethical standards do not impede the development of science and technology. Rather, they ensure the development is on the right path for the benefit of humankind."

Qin Chuan, president of the Chinese Association for Laboratory Animal Sciences, said improved ethical supervision was necessary to ensure the welfare of laboratory animals used in research on new drugs.

"But it is important for the development of science and technology for the public good not to impose unnecessarily stringent ethical standards," she said.

For example, scientists would, in principle, use lower-level animals for scientific experiments, but in some research involving the study of the brain, mice might not be suitable and higher-level mammals would been to be used for effective research, she said.