- The Cosmopolitanization of Science: Stem Cell Governance in China by Joy Yueyue Zhang
On August 9, 2001, then U.S. president George W. Bush announced one of the most controversial science policies in U.S. history, prohibiting federal support for research on human embryonic stem cells. In anticipation and in the aftermath of the policy change, the United States saw an exodus of scientists to countries where laws and regulations governing stem cell research were less stringent. Coincidentally, around that time, the Chinese government and institutions of learning launched various initiatives to attract its overseas scientists and students to jump-start its science and especially high-tech industries. This, plus a perceived lenient and lax policy environment toward stem cell research, made China one of the hot destinations for stem cell scientists. Around the turn of the century, for example, Li Lingsong left Stanford University to joined Peking University, and Sheng Huizhen grasped an opportunity at Shanghai Second Medical University, leaving her permanent position behind at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). They, along with some other returnees and domestically trained stem cell scientists, are the subject of Joy Yueyue Zhang’s new book, The Cosmopolitanization of Science: Stem Cell Governance in China.
At one time, China seemed to be becoming a very promising leader in stem cell research and eventually its commercialization. Indeed, stem cell research was one of the high-flying fields in the past decade, evidenced by increasing investment by the government and rising numbers of papers in leading international scientific journals as well as citations to them. For those who have followed China’s progress, however, including Zhang, the past decade may not be that exciting. At least China’s potential has yet to be realized. The most important achievement was probably human–rabbit hybrid embryos, made by Sheng Huizhen, the returnee from the NIH. But her paper did not make it into mainstream journals such as Science and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences but was, instead, published in August 2003 in Cell Research, a relatively little-known Chinese publication. Though Sheng fared better than Chen Xigu at Sun Yat-sen University, whose earlier and similar result was not even allowed publication, her research was scraped, probably because the research was controversial (pp. 83−87). In fact, Sheng has disappeared from the Chinese and world stem cell research community.
That stem cell research turned to be mere hype in China could be attributed to various reasons. The scientists Zhang interviewed blame China’s science and technology system (tizhi). At the micro level, China’s research organization misses a middle layer of researchers who could implement the principal investigator’s idea by advising apprentices and students. A culture that prefers being the head of a chicken rather than the tail of an ox leads to such problems as low efficiency and a [End Page 505] lack of communication between groups, among others. At the macro level, a lack of coordination between government agencies—the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Science and Technology in the case of stem cells—creates “a regulatory vacuum, ineffective implementation and confusion of managerial responsibilities” (p. 125). In between, at the middle level, distribution of resources and performance evaluation favor seniority, ignore peer review, and still weigh personal relations (guanxi), affection (renqing), or face (mianzi). A significant inequality in research funding and inevitably tensions have been generated between a very small number of haves, many of whom are returnees, and a large number of have-nots, who commonly are educated in China, severely alienating and corrupting China’s research community.
What Zhang mentions but does not discuss explicitly is an equally important factor that has caused “the conflict between a cosmopolitan prospect and China’s conventional research environment” (p. 107). That is, China’s stem cell community was full of opportunists who saw the potential of stem cells but might not have been fully competent. Of the thirty-eight scientists that Zhang interviewed, only five...