In Focus
Nov 14, 2019

With Chinese Links, New Questions About the Ethics of Research

A new research partnership between Irish and Chinese universities has raised ethical questions. For the researchers involved, it's a complex issue.

Kara SchechtmanContributing Writer
Dylan Furdyk for The University Times

When Anding Zhu, a professor at University College Dublin (UCD) who works on providing communications technologies to areas struck by natural disasters, read a criticism of his research in the news, he was distraught.

“For ordinary people, if I’m sitting at home with a cup of tea, reading the newspaper about this programme, I would have significant concern”, Zhu says of a story published in the Sunday Times about a grant programme between China and Ireland that funds his research. The programme came under criticism due to concerns about potential exploitation of the research by the Chinese government. Though Zhu agrees with the source of concern, he worries that people will get the impression that it is “a terrible programme” that should not be funded.

One year ago, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the National Science Foundation created this grant programme, which is now funding eight projects between Irish and Chinese institutions, primarily in telecommunications. The questions the programme raises – about what Ireland stands to gain from collaborating with Chinese institutions, what the risks are and how to best adjudicate proper action in the face of those risks – are some of the most paramount ones facing scientific researchers today.


Strategically speaking, the creation of the SFI–Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) grant programme was an inevitability for Ireland. Brian Trench, a senior lecturer at Dublin City University and a researcher in the field of science and technology journalism, writes that the government set a goal in 2015 to be an “innovation leader” in the sciences by 2020, flying in the face of assumptions that a small country could not hope to do “big science”.

Researchers, picking up on a similar idea, say that partnerships with countries as large as China can give Ireland access to the resources it needs to do that big science. Zhu recounts how his group did not have access to a facility to test the performance of transmitters that could be placed on drones. By partnering with researchers at Southeast University, he gains access to a testing chamber for communication-enabled drones, as well as to specialty expertise his group normally lacks.

I trust them completely in what they do and how they go about their research

“It significantly increases the capacity of what we can do”, he says, “because only five PhD students wouldn’t be able to finish this project”.

Trench explains in an interview with The University Times that, for these reasons of scale and expertise, research collaborations with China are de rigueur in most European countries.

“There are one point something billion people”, he says, “so whatever tiny 0.001 per cent of that pie you get is still potentially valuable”.

Because collaborations with China are such a natural fit for Irish researchers, many of the projects funded by the grant grew out of existing, organic relationships between researchers in the two countries. Both Zhu and Plamen Stamenov, a researcher in physics at Trinity who received funding for research on spintronics, collaborated with former colleagues and students who had done training in Ireland.

“It’s a bottom-up thing”, explains Linda Doyle, Trinity’s dean of research. “The academics themselves, they build links, they come up with good ideas themselves.”

The programme, while strategically useful to Ireland’s scientific goals, has caused consternation from commentators who worry about the thin line separating universities and the authoritarian government in China. Both of the Chinese universities collaborating with Irish institutions –Tsinghua and Southeast Universities – have been tied to state cybercrime activities against groups ranging from the Tibetan community in India to health insurance company Anthem. In an article in the Sunday Times, experts on Chinese politics expressed concerns that, given these connections, the state may use the projects for military or security purposes, despite researchers’ best intentions.

Researchers working on projects in the grant programme, however, say that they believe their projects meet high ethical standards. All funded proposals at Trinity and UCD went through two rounds of ethics vetting. The first occurred at the university level, and the second was conducted by SFI itself. SFI also mandates that researchers involved in projects sponsored by the agency receive regular ethics training from their universities.

At Trinity, researchers face no prohibitions on the kind of research beyond these reviews. “I trust them completely in what they do and how they go about their research”, says Doyle. She ties that trust to Trinity’s belief in academic freedom, allowing researchers to pursue knowledge in whatever way: “But with academic freedom comes responsibility.”

Scientific researchers are confronted with the challenge of drawing a line – the kind that requires an ethical compass as much as it does a ruler

All scientific researchers who take on that responsibility are confronted with the challenge of drawing a line – the kind of line that requires an ethical compass as much as it does a ruler. What, they must ask themselves, is the line between good and bad research?

The question is more complicated than it appears. None of the researchers involved in the SFI–NSFC programme is working on research with explicit military or state purposes. The primary threat that faces them is potential dual-use: their innovations, like most, could be used for good or bad ends.

“There are military applications for fresh bread and for potatoes”, says Stamenov, when asked whether his research on harvesting energy from vibrations for sensors in the Internet of Things devices could be used to nefarious ends.

“In any proper science, you will find that at the forefront of it there’s always something new coming. And if there’s something new coming, as it should be, the military always has an interest to at least investigate the application of it.”

There are many different heuristics to determine the line under these uncertain circumstances. Stamenov says he avoids research that military research agencies express interest in funding. Zhu asks himself what he thinks the research will be used for. Luiz Da Silva, a researcher at the CONNECT centre working on a smart networking project funded by the SFI–NSFC grant, says he navigates the line by only accepting funding from “entities that support unbiased and ethical research”.

Who should have the power to draw that line on what counts as good and bad? For many critics of the SFI–NSFC programme, researchers with their heuristics do not seem like the right answer.

Appealing to the same notions of academic freedom that Doyle does to justify empowering researchers, Trench notes the importance of universities doing due diligence when forming partnerships with authoritarian states, lest they accidentally support a project that has fettered conditions of inquiry.

Meanwhile, government officials, critiquing Minister for Training and Skills John Halligan’s handling of the programme, call for more government oversight, objecting in particular to the lack of a security review of the programme before it launched. Fianna Fáil’s Spokesman for Defence Jack Chambers and Social Democrat TD Catherine Murphy both expressed concerns that the government was not taking these risks seriously.

Right now, researchers, politicians and critics all agree on one thing: the dialogue between stakeholders is not effective. Zhu, baulking at the characterisation of his disaster communications work as drone research, believes that journalists need to “give more explanation” of the projects that are funded, so that the public can form better opinions.

Trench, meanwhile, sees the responsibility of communication as being incumbent on universities and researchers. “Do [universities] give as much attention to explaining how and why they do what they do, as they do to what they do and what’s been found?”, he asks. “I think … you would actually have to say, no, they don’t give as much time and effort to explaining how and why they do what they do as they do to just announcing results and findings or grants.”

It may seem odd to imagine a public conversation devoted as much to questions of method and purpose as to the substance of the research. But Doyle, refuting charges that China might be gaining access to secret information through the programme, cites openness as an important tenet of research, citing the open scholarship movement. She calls it “the whole ethos of research, and the whole purpose of research in itself”. An open conversation about methodology and ethics may be an essential part of that effort – and provide a way to set the line together.

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