CRISPR babies and other ethical missteps in science threaten China’s global standing

“What happened this time was an ethics disaster for the world,” according to Wang Yuedan, a professor of immunology at Peking University, as quoted in The New York Times. He was talking about the recent claim by U.S.-trained Chinese scientist He Jiankui that he’d successfully altered the DNA in vitro of human embryos that were later born as twin girls in China. If true as claimed, the edits he made would be inherited by any of their future offspring.

As a longtime scholar of international relations in science, I contend the “disaster” has many more implications for China than the world at large.

No doubt, you’ve seen the news that a scientist at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, created the first human babies with changes to their genetic germline — the genes the babies would pass on to their own children. The announcement was made in a most unorthodox way: over social media rather than through accepted scientific channels of peer review, reproduction, validation and publication.

In turn, He has been hit by a furious backlash over perceived violations of scientific and ethical norms. But in this age of increasingly collaborative science, the furor could unleash repercussions throughout the Chinese research community – and perhaps even have an impact on China’s military strength.

The scientific enterprise is increasingly global and collaborative. Here He Jiankui elaborates on his announcement at the Second International Summit on Human Gene Editing in Hong Kong. AP Photo/Kin Cheung

Tarnished reputation and trustworthiness

The disaster for China comes in several flavors.

One hit comes in the form of reputational damage in the international system of science and technology research. A researcher and their institution advance by gaining positive attention for their work. This social system operates globally and is driven by reputation. Jennifer Doudna, the molecular biologist who first described CRISPR-Cas9, published with other top scientists in the journals Nature and Science, building a reputation that attracted elite collaborators. These collaborations, conducted across international lines, led to the critical CRISPR breakthrough.

In a perverse way, He Jiankui seems to have bet on this dynamic — that by being first, he would enhance his own and his nation’s scientific reputation. He bet wrong. He may now join the pantheon of notables making claims through media rather than through science journals, such as chemists Martin Fleischman and Stanley Pons, who, in 1989, announced by press release that they’d discovered fusion at room temperature. They had discovered something, but the work had not been validated by the community before they went public.

This rollout will not burnish China’s scientific reputation since the research community expects to be part of the conversation. Science requires openness and exchange; He Jiankui operated in secret.

He’s action introduced a second threat to China by further reducing international trust in scientific collaboration with his country. Even before He’s announcement, this trust has been challenged by a long string of missteps in science and technology that were easier to ignore when China was still a developing nation.

A group of American scholars recently issued a warning, through a report by Stanford University’s public policy think tank the Hoover Institution, that Chinese actions violating intellectual property rights and international norms warrant stepping up “constructive vigilance” and backing away from cooperation. “At the same time that China’s authoritarian system takes advantage of the openness of American society to seek influence,” the document continues, “it impedes legitimate efforts by American counterpart institutions to engage Chinese society on a reciprocal basis.”