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Despite new procedures on access to scientific information introduced after the SARS and HIV/AIDS epidemics, delays in communicating data on the transmission of bird flu to pigs suggests that more needs to be done.

In the concluding volume of his massive seven-part history of science and technology in China, the scientist-turned-historian Joseph Needham returned to a key question that had triggered his enterprise. Why, despite its many impressive achievements in fields from mathematics to military engineering, did the country never go through a scientific revolution comparable to that which Europe experienced in the early seventeenth century?

His explanation was essentially a social and cultural one (1). China, concluded Needham, had remained gripped by a 'bureaucratic feudalism' that, despite its clear commitment to intellectual achievement, never provided an opportunity for the modern scientific spirit to grow.

Needham's argument was relatively straightforward. In order to progress, modern science requires more than individuals who are gifted in either experimental techniques or abstract reasoning. Equally important, he pointed out, was a culture that encouraged empirically-based challenges to the ideas of those in authority.

Europe had its city-states and its merchant guilds, each providing a political and cultural space in which this could happen. Yet China's political system discouraged any decentralisation of power. Indeed, its 'mandarinate' — a strongly centralised system run by highly-trained administrators — prevented the growth of social organisations within which reasoned opposition could flourish.

'Bureaucratic feudalism'

Over the past decade, China's leaders have done much to eliminate the more perverse of the bureaucratic constraints that continued to flourish under — indeed often appeared to be encouraged by — its 20th-century communist leaders. Any visitor to modern China is struck by the buzz of enterprise that exists at all levels of society, from the shining high-tech quarters of Shanghai, to the entrepreneurial enthusiasm of market traders.

Sadly, it seems, the scientific community still has a long way to go to emulate the same openness. While traditions in some scientific institutions are changing, others remain embedded in their own version of bureaucratic feudalism, where age is equated with intellectual authority, young researchers are reluctant to challenge their superiors, and public criticism is seen only as a source of embarrassment.

As Mu-Ming Poo, director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai wrote recently, "critical scientific exchange is rarely seen in China, especially in public". Yet, he added, "open and frank dialogue is urgently needed to make scientific conferences in China not just friendly gatherings but intellectual events that stimulate ideas." (2)

Local language publication

One area in which Mu-Ming identified a problem was in the publication of research results, and in particular the submission of scientific papers to international journals. Those brought up to operating in a docile way, he argued, tended to treat critical comments from referees as unfair or hostile. But he urged them to adopt a more positive approach to criticism. It was often useful to reflect upon the comments, and then return to the laboratory bench, said Mu-Ming, rather than respond, for example, by immediately sending the paper virtually unchanged to a different journal.

It is unclear whether any such thinking lay behind a decision by Chinese scientists to publish important findings about the behaviour of the virus that causes avian influenza — or bird flu — in Chinese language journals (see Bird flu data overlooked in Chinese journals).

The scientists involved should not necessarily be blamed for the fact that their important research, which showed the virus can pass into pigs (and thus, at least in theory, on to humans) did not come to the attention of the international community until six months after they were published. And it would certainly be wrong to argue that such important research should only appear in Western, English-language journals.

Nevertheless, it is difficult not to suspect that an apparent reluctance to insert the research results directly into the heart of an intense international debate is related to the centuries-old cultural traditions described above. And the incident certainly strengthens the case for greater communication between Chinese scientists and their foreign colleagues, if not for greater transparency within the scientific community itself.

Open communication: an essential need

As mentioned previously in these columns, the experience of both the HIV/AIDS and the SARS outbreaks have persuaded China's top authorities of the value of scientific openness. Such openness may well cause pain to individuals and institutions in the short-term, particularly when they point to managerial shortcomings. But this will be more than compensated for by the benefits of facing complex and sensitive issues as they actually are, not as officials would like them to be (see Bird Flu: The Communication Challenge).

The same spirit of openness is now required within the scientific community. During the SARS crisis, for example, there were reports of scientific institutions refusing to share data with colleagues in other organisations, prompted, perhaps, by misplaced enthusiasm for the adage that "knowledge is power". The problems that this created for policy-makes have led to government edicts requiring information to be shared, in recognition of the nature of science as what the British physicist John Ziman has called "public knowledge". 

But such policies will only take root and flourish where knowledge sharing produces its own rewards (even if this means creating an appropriate reward scheme, such as recognition and compensation for publication in scientific journals). And ironically, the same issue has come up in a very different setting, namely the divulging of information in patent applications.

One of the main justifications of patents is that they encourage knowledge sharing by granting the originator of that knowledge a monopoly over its use for a limited period of time. China now faces the challenges of developing a system of intellectual property rights that not only ensures full disclosure in patent applications but also, through appropriate enforcement procedures, ensures that companies — particularly foreign owned ones — that comply with such requirements do not lose out commercially as a result (see China seeks more disclosure on foreign-held patents).

But the dilemma faced by China in this field only underscores the dangers created when too much emphasis is placed on science as intellectual capital, and not enough on its role as public knowledge that needs to be shared. The challenge facing the Chinese authorities is to create new forms of collaboration and knowledge sharing that allow it to escape the shackles of its cultural inheritance without falling prey to new forms of exploitation under which policies are made by (and in the interests of) the economically powerful. The scientific community is a good place to start. 

  1. Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China: General Conclusions and Reflections, Volume 7 - Part II
  2. Mu-Ming Poo, 'Cultural reflections', Nature 428, 204 - 205 (11 March 2004)