When considering the field of ethics in scientific practice, it’s become somewhat of a trope to compare the risk-averse West to the 'progress-at-any-cost' attitude of the Chinese. As with all tropes, this represents a gross generalisation that might hide a glimmer of truth. It seems uncontroversial to suggest that scientists in China have fewer hoops to jump through in order for their experiments to obtain the required ethical clearance. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where this sensibility originates from (although many have tried) but one cannot deny its impact on the scientific community globally. This is especially true now as so many of China’s top scientists are being educated in prestigious American universities.
It’s with this context that I came across the concept of ethics dumping.
The first time I heard about it was in an ‘Economist’ article titled ‘No dumping, please’ published in February 2019. The article explores a story of Chinese researchers who had utilised cutting-ege gene-editing technology on real embryos that are now baby girls. The announcement drew worldwide shock and condemnation due to its risk and ethical implications. It caused serious shockwaves in the scientific community. We’ve known for a while that this was technically possible thanks to the recent advancements in CRISPR technology - but these sorts of human experiments were widely agreed to be beyond the realms of acceptable ethical practice at this early stage of development. Nevertheless, the world is a big place and is difficult to police - and now we have two humans in the world whose genomes have been edited. The experiment is alive and running.
Once the outrage dies down, as it has, the natural next step is one of curiosity. Now that we know that someone has pulled the trigger and taken the ethical risk for us - we can’t help but wonder about the results. What is going to happen to these girls? The potential upside to this sort of genetic engineering is immense and perhaps this might be the first clue to pushing closer towards that future. The potential downsides are equally significant but because this is being done somewhere else - we feel quarantined from it. We can watch from a distance. This curiosity that I describe (and that I feel myself) is the psychological basis for ethics dumping.
The Economist describes ethics dumping as “the carrying out by researchers from one country (usually rich, and with strict regulations) in another (usually less well off, and with laxer laws) of an experiment that would not be permitted at home, or of one that might be permitted, but in a way that might be frowned on.”
The basic idea is that scientists from the West are in a position to avoid the ethical backlash in their home countries by having their experiments performed offshore. By outsourcing their dirty work - scientists can push the boundaries of their research without necessarily being held responsible for the consequences. In this particular gene editing case, there are allegations that the Chinese scientists were collaborating with a team in the USA, adding credence to the existence of these sorts of ethics dumping schemes.
In the Economist article, Zhai Xiaomei, the executive director of the Centre for Bioethics at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences was quoted as saying “China’s weak ethics governance has made it an attractive destination for the export of unethical practices from the developed world.” And this is not only an issue in China. Similar situations have been investigated across the rest of Asia and in Africa. The economic incentive for being a place where these experiments can be performed is significant and some are convinced that it’s a burgeoning industry growing right under our noses.
We’ve seen this time and time again of course in other areas outside of mainstream science. Whether it’s the sweatshops of South East Asia, the mines of Africa or the refugee camps in the Middle East - ethics dumping is part and parcel of the rich/poor divide. The arbitrary lines in the sand that demarcate national borders purport to offer a safe zone in which we can consider ourselves moral and ethical, while those parts of our society that we don’t want to be associated with occur out of sight and out of mind.
It’s a sad state of affairs when important ethical decisions and risks are being swept into the underworld for fear of public retribution in (what we call) the civilised world. It flouts the very idea of having ‘skin in the game’ and instead encourages a false pride in a strict ethical code that merely chooses to force negative externalities on other humans who aren’t in a position to say no.