To tackle widespread scientific misconduct, the Chinese government has expanded its controversial social credit system to include infractions made by research scientists. The plan could scare some scientists straight—but the potential for abuse is very real.
“Researchers in China who commit scientific misconduct could soon be prevented from getting a bank loan, running a company or applying for a public-service job,” reports science writer David Cyranoski at Nature News.
Previously, it was China’s science ministry and its universities that had the power to police and punish offending scientists, but now, “dozens of government agencies” have been bestowed the power to mete out penalties, Cyranoski writes. So in addition to losing funding and awards, researchers now face restrictions outside of academia and in domains that have nothing to do with research.
This may seem like a knee-jerk reaction to Chinese scientist He Jiankui’s stunningly irresponsible gene-editing experiment, the (scant) details of which were disclosed late last month. He admitted to using the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing tool to modify human embryos that are now twin babies, despite the immature state of the technology. Moreover, the scientist conducted the research in secret and failed to go through the normal channels, among other alleged indiscretions. China’s government shut down He’s project and launched an investigation. He is currently missing, with rumours circulating that he’s being held by the Chinese government.
The announcement that China’s social credit system will now include research scientists certainly jibes with this still-ongoing episode, but the new policy is an effort to address endemic scientific misconduct within the Chinese research community as a whole. There have been widespread reports, for example, of Chinese researchers faking data, falsifying CVs, and faking peer reviews. Earlier this year, the Chinese government said it was going to finally crack down on academic misconduct and introduce new reforms, including the introduction of a national naughty list of offenders—the members of which could be disqualified from future funding or research positions, and even prevent them from getting jobs outside of academia.
China is in the process of introducing a sweeping and life-long social ranking system, the credo of which is, “once untrustworthy, always restricted,” in the stark works of China’s President Xi Jinping. The system was launched in 2013 and now includes nearly 10 million people. The system should be fully implemented in the next two to three years, and include some 22 million citizens.
The program works by marking individuals who have violated laws, regulations, or social norms and then restricting their access to certain services and programs, such as getting loans. Eventually, the program will target petty indiscretions such as jay-walking, no-shows for restaurant reservations, and not paying transit fare. To date, the social credit system has prevented more than 11 million people from purchasing airline tickets and 4 million from accessing high-speed rail. But it’s not all punitive; bonus points are awarded to people who donate blood, recycle, or do volunteer work.
The point of the system is to root out corruption and lawlessness, while promoting prosocial behaviour. But it’s use in a one-party, quasi-totalitarian state is cause for concern.
Who gets to decide which rules apply, for example, and if they’re fair? Are the severities of the social punishments proportionate to the indiscretions? And does the system unfairly target certain segments of the population, such as citizens from poor socioeconomic groups? And by extending this system to academic settings, researchers could find themselves unfairly targeted by a system with very little accountability. Jealous rival groups or a principal investigator whose sexual advances were turned down could unfairly use the system to threaten or hurt innocent research scientists, among many other possible abuses.
These are challenging and troubling issues, no doubt—particularly for a nation run by an unaccountable government and its equally unaccountable institutions.