Barriers to Neuroethics Engagement in China

By Jie Yin

Image courtesy of Pixabay
I am a philosopher doing biomedical ethics research and teaching ethics and Kant at Fudan University (Shanghai, China). I received training in analytic philosophy and got my Ph.D. from SUNY Albany in the US. In this short piece, I will discuss two aspects regarding the barriers to the neuroethics engagement in current Chinese society; these two, as one might see, are somehow related to each other. 

First, I suggest looking at the mechanism affecting the operationalization of neuroethics engagement. A commonly seen phenomenon in current Chinese society is that the communication among scientists, ethicists, the general public, and policy-makers is not very effective. From my experience as a bioethicist working in academia, in order for the stakeholders in our society to be actively involved into the neuroethics engagement, governmental-level administrative order might be needed. 

Unlike in Western countries, administrative order in China can play a central role in almost everything that involves a variety of stakeholders. It is not only that the general public has a faith in the power and efficiency of the government (so they tend to follow the trend led by the government), but also that the existing administrative infrastructure has already regulated corresponding stakeholders, and thereby, shaped their beliefs and desires in various aspects. In China, most scientists work for public universities and research institutions, administrated by the Ministry of Science and Technology, the People’s Republic of China, which in turn is affiliated with the state council, the highest administrative level office. The major funding resource, NSFC (National Natural Science Foundation of China) also has these affiliations. In spite of NSFC being relatively independent in administrating and regulating on national science foundation, as stated in its official introduction, it is also supervised by the Ministry of Science and Technology of China. 

Image courtesy of Pixabay
I think most ethicists in China probably find that their work has limited influential power if it is not backed up by administrative order. In a word, ethics can be “beautiful talks” that have no genuine impact on neuroscience research and neurotechnology application. Scientists might be able to appreciate the significance of integrating neuroethics into the research but are simply lacking the “drive” to implement it. And that is why the recently established National Science and Technology Ethics Committee (officially announced on July 24, 2019 by Mr. Xi) might have a positive impact on public engagement, as well as, in the long run, achieving a global neuroethics. 

Second, I find there is a stereotyped pattern, “learning from moral models,” for a long time, in the already adopted model of ethics training for scientists in China. I later found that this pattern is also due to the administrative order, since moral education as such is required (the official document webpage link is here), starting from 2011, by the China Association for Science and Technology and the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China

In my opinion, scientists do not receive sufficient formal ethics training before they conduct or initiate a research project. Instead, they are required to attend “moral education” style lectures for the purpose of ethics training, which is composed of speeches on the topic of moral virtue. Usually such speeches are composed of role model stories, in a rather unified narrative. For example, a prestigious and welcomed scientist will tell the story of a predecessor scientist who has conquered unimaginable obstacles and, most of the time, had to sacrifice her or his personal life in order to wholeheartedly devote to the career for the progress of the science and technology for the beloved country. Patriotism, selflessness, and dedication are the key words. On the other hand, in China, administrative liability is stressed as the focus of so-called “ethical governance.” That means, for example, if a scientist goes against professional ethics and does something that basically anyone who hasn’t received even a bit ethics training would deem wrong, then the institute or department that this “bad” scientist works for will be facing administrative adjustment, or if serious enough, punishment, which in turn will affect most researchers in the very unit. The consequences could be more complicated approval procedures, more speeches to attend, and more reports to write. The mandatory speeches that all graduate students as well as their academic supervisors have to attend are usually delivered by political leaders, often they used to be scientists or are not actually working routinely on science but instead focusing more on administrative work regarding scientific research, not by ethicists, which might magnify the impression that one only needs to be responsible when something becomes actual administrative order. The over-emphasis on individual moral character and endeavor might cover the problem that should be attributed to other factors, such as infrastructure. 

As I see it, the current situation of moral education style ethics training in China I mentioned above could have a few consequences: 
  • (a) A confusion between moral character and ethical behavior, which either intimidates scientists and obstructs further communication, or engenders moral “mania” among the general public; 
  • (b) Using moral education for the purpose of ethical training might lead to a lack of awareness on ethical reasoning among scientists, or cause them to frame the ethical question incorrectly: they might either understand the ethical question as being irrelevant, or as going against the law; 
  • (c) over emphasis on science integrity, or on the responsibility/accountability at specific level of department and institutes—in other words, compliance—, might not raise among scientists sufficient awareness on ethics itself. Instead, it always reminds them of the administrative role played by the department, which in turn causes the situation in which no one or no department, as a matter of fact, has to take responsibility; therefore, it seems to be a dead end.
Image courtesy of Pixabay
In short, the administrative order can be very powerful in shaping the values and beliefs of the professional scientist community as well as facilitating public engagement process; this might be an advantage from a pragmatic point of view. Ethicists and scientists who seek to promote neuroethics engagement should seize the opportunity at the moment when the government is officially announcing its determination on ethics governance. However, it is one thing to applaud the releasing of governmental level regulations or recommendation documents, but another to substantially raise awareness among stakeholders and help achieve ethical competence. To reach or even approach the goal, techniques and strategies need to be implemented step by step and this requires a wide range of collaboration among stakeholders. For example, social scientists, natural scientists and ethicists should work on finding out what, as a matter of fact, hinders the process of public engagement on neuroethics. 

What’s more, specifically for Chinese bioethicists, the big challenge also lies in what shall be the things, in a normative sense, that currently Chinese value. In other words, normative inquiry regarding what should be valued precedes the implementation of raising ethical awareness and ethics training. In an era when eastern and western culture encounter at various aspects, it remains to be discussed how to reconcile different values and attitudes whilst an adapted value system is constructed. 

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Dr. Jie Yin is currently an associate professor at School of Philosophy, Fudan University. She is an interdisciplinary researcher specializing in bioethics, philosophy of medicine and Kant. She was trained in both medical school (B.M./Fudan University) and philosophy department (Mphil/Fudan University, PhD/SUNY Albany). She has won several teaching awards and is the principal investigator of a few research projects on bioethics, including a state-funded research grant on just health. Dr. Yin is also collaborating with her Fudan colleagues on several state-funded interdisciplinary research projects regarding ethics and policy framework of emerging technologies as well as research ethics.  


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Yin, J. (2020). Barriers to Neuroethics Engagement in China. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2020/03/barriers-to-neuroethics-engagement-in.html

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