The spread in China of unproven stem cell therapies for conditions such as epilepsy and spinal cord injuries has worried the country’s health officials. There is no clear evidence that these treatments work – nor that they are killing people.
Of the thousands of patients treated in China and abroad, some feel they have been helped, even if only marginally, and many others are willing to pay thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars for treatment. are ready. Are doctors taking advantage of people desperate for treatment? How can the government – and potential patients – make sense of this?
An obvious place from which to seek guidance would be the National Stem Cell Society. But China doesn’t have one. A group of scientists, including many of the country’s leading and internationally established researchers, are trying to create one.
However, Chinese officials hate congregations—particularly ones like Falun Gong, which they believe threaten the stability of the country. So the Ministry of Civil Affairs keeps a tight grip on who is allowed to organize in a formal sense. As a result, China’s stem-cell hopes will have to go through a slow process of planning and applying to become a ‘Level 2’ society.
This means that they have to persuade an established society to take it as an appendage, which will dramatically reduce their ability to function effectively. A level 2 society does not control its own purse strings and decisions have to go through the parent organization.
Yet, as the example above shows, allowing scientists to come together can only benefit China, by helping with scientific progress and aiding in the challenges facing the Chinese nation.
The government alone need not reconsider its approach: the researchers themselves need to pursue new forms of social organization. Scientists in the South often do not know what is happening in the North and vice versa. Most of the current scholarly societies do not function well.
Annual meetings are often the subject of fanfare, with elite researchers showing and forming groups leaning on genealogical rather than scientific considerations. Introducing graduate students to the wider community is a low priority. Constructive criticism is taken as a basis for breaking ties rather than practical advice. Many scientists simply don’t bother to leave.
Sometimes ‘megaprojects’ pull researchers together. But organizing meetings for such packages can be more like dividing the booty than creating the most creative research program.
Because of these failures, China’s science loses its competitiveness. Stronger societies will pave the way for better communication and more productive collaboration, and allow a forum for response to scientific criticism. This, in turn, will provide a body of honest reviewers with whom the funding body can consult.
Often, instead of listening to a variety of voices to get a representative view from the ‘community’, funding bodies listen to only a few well-connected scientists. Strong domestic scientific societies have the added benefit of being a reference point for constructive contact with scientists and societies elsewhere. And they can also act as an advisory body to the government.
Gone are the days of small research communities in China. Science has grown enormously to China’s credit and benefit. In order to benefit the country more fully, networking by its researchers also needs to be allowed to flourish.