Debating science risks

Chinese scientists appear to be more open to discussing the risks and ethics of new technologies than their Indian counterparts

By Latha Jishnu
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Chinese scientists appear to be more open to discussing the risks and ethics of new technologies than their Indian counterparts

A closed society, indifferent to public opinion, fixated on scientific progress, authorities unwilling to countenance dissent. These are the stereotypes about the Chinese system that are prevalent here. More so in matters related to science and technology (S&T). Since the Chinese pursue development with unabated zeal and take inordinate pride in their scientific prowess, it seemed far-fetched to think that Chinese scientists would question any technology much less engage in a debate on the ethics of anything that holds out the promise of growth.

Much of this still holds good in today’s China but much is also changing. At a recent conclave in Delhi on ‘Ethics, equity and inclusion in S&T’ it was refreshing to hear Chinese social scientists speak about the attitude of the government and the scientific establishment to the risks of frontier technologies such as synthetic biology and nanotechnology. Leading the team was the erudite and ever-smiling Cao Nanyan, professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences in Beijing’s Tsinghua University, who held forth frankly on the interplay of Chinese values, S&T and governance. Some of the things she touched upon were a revelation as were the interventions made by professors from CASTED (Chinese Academy of S&T for Development). They helped remove some cobwebs from Indian minds on what goes on in China.

Cao was candid about the holy cows of Chinese society: national pride in technology and the creed of “developmentalism”. The latter is the unshakable belief that development= progress=economic growth=improved livelihoods. Both S&T and development, she said, till recently embodied the promise of everything good in life. And since the main purpose of S&T was to raise China’s international status and enhance national power, no uncomfortable question about the negative fallout of technology was raised lest it impede progress of research. Media and the public shared a naïve belief in the goodness of science and did not question anything.


As a result, social scientists kept away from S&T and, in turn, were looked down upon by the mainstream scientists. (This would be familiar to our scientists in NISTADS or the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, many of whom have suffered similar treatment.)

In the last decade, however, perceptions have been changing. As the negative fallout of various technologies began to emerge, people realised that these are fraught with risks that cannot be fully predicted, interpreted or controlled by science. People’s awareness of their rights combined with the efforts of academia, have now brought S&T ethics into the public domain and sparked controversies, says Cao.

The most intense debate, it turns out, is on genetically modified (GM) food, involving everyone from government, academia and media to ordinary people. This was an interesting revelation because one was only vaguely aware that the GM foods issue was causing ripples in China. In September last year when the scandal of Chinese children being fed GM Golden Rice by a Tufts University researcher broke, I recall there was uproar in the country. It transpired that Chinese officials had hidden from parents the fact that Golden Rice was genetically modified. Parents have since been demanding a guarantee that the rice would not affect their children’s health and were also seeking monetary compensation for breach of ethics. Angry parents were shown on China’s CCTV demanding to know why facts were hidden from parents.

But back to Cao’s discourse. Her point is that while Chinese authorities and scientists would prefer not to have full-scale debates on cutting edge technology such as nano and synthetic biology so that the state can reap the full benefit of its ongoing research without public controversy, people are slowly getting into the habit of raising uncomfortable questions.

For me the most significant discovery was that social scientists are now raising issues of ethics with their counterparts in the physical sciences. Think tanks such as CASTED, which are affiliated to government departments and ministries, are also preparing research reports for the policymakers, it appears.

“We are all Chinese so they had no problem discussing these issues with us,” was the simple explanation offered by CASTED director Zhao Yandong. Here, on the other hand, social scientists have been marginalised by mainstream scientists and those in the agricultural disciplines. I doubt if researchers in NISTADS, the counterpart of CASTED, would be able to engage with their colleagues in CSIR and ICAR on an equal footing.

Discussions on contentious technologies are not yet public in China but are apparently becoming the norm in academia. If debate of this kind, however limited, is taking place in authoritarian China, why are scientists in India’s notoriously anarchic democracy afraid to speak out?

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  • Given that India is

    Given that India is notoriously well known, in academic circles, to be the leader in plagiarism along with hundreds of journals (registered in India) that would publish paper with either namesake peer review or no peer review, scientists should first of all seriously start discussing the ethics of publishing!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • "NISTADS has been involved in

    "NISTADS has been involved in the debates on science risk in the past but may be through individuals. I contributed actively to the debate while sitting in NISTADS and was not handicapped because of that.

    In my view, the problem is different. The scientific community has only a limited involvement in risk research. In India, consequently the science policy research studies are not in position to bring in Indian evidence. In India, we are not doing enough research on risk. We have neglected this topic in a systematic manner. Some of us have been stating our positions openly. As the Indian experimental evidence-based scrutiny is inadequately addressed at the moment in the GM discussion with reference to environmental, health and social dimensions there remains the problem of discussion becoming ideological and not scientific enough."

    Dinesh Abrol, professor, Institute of Studies in Industrial Development (ISID) & former senior scientist with NISTADS

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Excellent. In India rarely we

    In India rarely we appreciate innovative research in Scientific Laboratories, Universities etc. The Top Brass(in some cases Mediocres) feel insecure if they encourage innovative research by juniors, hence suppress it.I have seen in my 40 years involvement Science & Technology research, hardly any laboratory or Government agency appreciates progressive research. Hundreds of letters addressed to Government and Scientific Laboratories, not even an acknowledgement is given. On the other hand I could get immediate response even from Nobel Laureates abroad. They have an open mind. My Blog is more popular in US than in India.

    In India the CRAB Rule very much prevails. That is why the best brains migrate to other countries. The solid foundation for Science and Technology was laid by political will of Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru and Smt. Indira Gandhiji.
    There is abundant talent available in the country. It is the Government/Private sector which should tap it. Though there was much talk of Creation of Rs 5000 Crore Innovation Fund, nothing has happened in the field. Any NationÔÇÖs progress depends on their people's creativity, innovation and Invention. One Invention by Edison transformed the world's power of lighting.

    As regards China,I visited China 6 times in the last 12 years and could see the tremendous development in all fields there. The country added about 2 lakh MW power in One year which India could not achieve since Independence ! India Started Wind energy in 1985 and has about 21000 MW installed capacity, China started in 2003 and tops the world with around 70,000MW. What I find interesting and amazing about Chinese is their ability to design multiple uses of different gadgets. But General criticism of Chinese consumer goods is that the quality is poor. But one should not forget the fact that Indians want Cheap price and best quality which are diametrically opposite. I have some of the Chinese Solar Gadgets which I have been using for years and they can beat any country's quality but costs more.
    China also leads the world in Solar PV and Solar Thermal.
    In India we need to THINK BIG, Think Innovatively and march ahead to be the World leader but cannot content with being imitators. India has the resources, resourcefulness but only lack Political will to promote Top Quality Research in all fields. Thanks to the reforms brought out under the Prime Ministership of Shri P.V.Narasimha Rao, the country has opened a new chapter in industrialisation and that has to be consolidated further.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore (AP),India

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Although there are some

    Although there are some research and discussions on the risk of technologies in Chinese academia (and in the case of GM food, the Chinese public are also involved), the totalistic power of the state provides the backdrop for the understanding of all phenomena in China. However, the diversity and vividness of the Indian society impressed me deeply.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply