China issues guideline to ensure use of science and technology for good purposes

By Wu Yuehui, People’s Daily

To better ensure the use of science and technology for good purposes and standardize scientific and technological innovation activities, China recently issued a guideline on strengthening the governance over ethics in science and technology.

The document, which is the country’s first national-level guideline of its kind, made systematic deployment regarding science and technology ethics governance for the first time.

In recent years, China has witnessed rapid development of scientific and technological innovation and achieved major breakthroughs in cutting-edge technologies in such fields as artificial intelligence (AI), gene editing and assisted reproduction.

As new trails are blazed in more and more frontier fields, challenges facing ethics in science and technology have also increased.

The guidelinespecified the ethical principles that scientific and technological activities should follow, stipulated the requirements for governance over ethics in science and technology, anddemonstrated China’s stance on and attitude toward strengthening governance over ethics in the field of the science and technology, according to Xiang Libin, vice-minister of science and technology.

It established the country’s basicethics governance system for science and technology and clarified the responsibilities of and specific requirements for the government, innovation entities, science and technology associations and personnel in governance over ethics in the field, Xiang pointed out.

A worker at BoHua Ecological Agriculture, an ecological agriculture technology company in Boxing county, Binzhou city, east China’s Shandong province, takes care of butterfly orchids cultivated through plant cloning technology, Jan. 13, 2021. (Photo by Chen Bin/People’s Daily Online)

The document also provided top-level design for the construction of the ethics governance system, specifying tasks involving such aspects as norms and standards, regulatory systems, as well as laws and regulations, Xiang noted.

Besides, it proposed systematic measures for ethics review and supervision, including strengthening the early warning, prevention and control of ethical risks and strictly investigating and punishingactivities that violate the requirements of science and technology ethics in accordance with laws and regulations, Xiang said.

The document stressed that scientific and technological activities should follow five ethical principles, including serving the well-being of humanity, respecting people’s right to life, adhering to fairness and justice, controlling risks in an appropriate way, and maintaining openness and transparency.

“These five principles are not only the values and norms that should be followed in scientific and technological activities in China, but also the basisof a common context for dialogue between China and the international science community,” noted ZhaiXiaomei, a member of China’s national science and technology ethics committee.

Zhai explained that the guideline made “serving the well-being of humanity” the primary ethical principle in science and technology because it is the prime driving force behind technological advances and the core requirement for the use of science and technology for good purposes.

Inhuman subject research, it is necessary for researchers to follow through the commitment of “respecting people’s right to life” to ensure the research is conducted ethically, respects the subjects’ right to privacy, and protects their right to know and choose, Zhai stressed.

When it comes to experiments involving animals, researchers are obliged to treat the animals well and make sure that their scientific research activities meet the requirements of “reduction, replacement, and refinement”, Zhai added.

As frontier technologies are developing rapidly, it is necessary to pay attention to the problems caused by people’s differences based on ethical concepts besides the risks in technical security, Zhai said, who considers it important to reflect onthe functions of frontier technologies comprehensively and prudently, especially those highly controversial technologies that could have a significant impact on humanity.

A researcher tests a medical robot at an innovation base in an artificial intelligence (AI) industrial belt around the Yuquan Campus of the Zhejiang University, Hangzhou city, east China’s Zhejiang province, Nov. 10, 2021. (Photo by Long Wei/People’s Daily Online)

Highlighting problem-oriented governance over science and technology ethics, the guideline set five requirements for the governance, including “ethics first, compliance with laws and regulations, agile governance, suitability for national conditions, and openness and cooperation”.

“‘Ethics first’ requires focusing on ethical risk prevention and control, moving ahead the risk preparedness threshold, and adopting the ethics requirements throughout the whole process of scientific and technological activities andin all fields of scientific and technological innovation,” said Feng Chujian, deputy director-general of the Department of Supervision and Scientific Integrity at the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST).

Research institutes and researchers shouldn’t carry out scientific and technological activities without thinking about ethical standards or generalize the ethics in science and technology; instead, they have to actively assess the ethical risks before conducting research, and investigate in a timely manner scientific and technological activities involving ethical risks and falling into the categories of activities required to go through ethics review, Feng pointed out.

China will also establish specialized and regional ethics review centers, and set up a certification mechanism for the country’s ethics review committee to improve its capacity, according to Dai Guoqing, director-general of the Department of Supervision and Scientific Integrity under the MOST.

To facilitate the oversight of research in frontier fields, the guideline proposed making a list of scientific and technological activities involving high risks related to ethics in science and technology and rechecking the results of their ethics review.

The national science and technology ethics committee is drafting such a list, with medicine, life sciences and AI being key fields of relevant activities on the list, Dai noted, adding that great progress has been achieved in making the list, which will be released within the year.

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