Department of Anthropology

International science and bioethics collaborations

International science and bioethics collaborations: critical approaches to new knowledge relations. ISBC is an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) research project, carried out with the University of Cambridge and Durham University by a team of social anthropologists.

ISBC research summary

International organisations in the global biomedical economy are sustained increasingly by knowledge relations that combine multiple interests, markets and country partners.

Within various user communities the idea of collaboration is now emerging as the prominent paradigm for social translation between knowledge partners. However, the role of science, technology and bioethics in new knowledge creation and transfer (including forms of 'biowealth') has been typically framed by first-world policy makers and by 'development' notions.

Focusing on nine Asian countries, this comparative research applies ethnographic methods to study the practical and conceptual implications of values of 'collaboration' for international capacity-building.

This includes three inter-institutional subprojects: sponsor-host relations in international clinical trials; human embryonic stem cell research in society, and collaborative bioethics networking.

These projects aim to contribute a culturally reflexive understanding of the drivers of commercial and academic research institutions and forms of regulation by state and non- governmental organisations.

It also aims to answer when discourses of development are reframed or replaced by those of collaboration, what kinds of socio-economic demands emerge and how are these formulated in the management of science across cultures?

The Sussex project

The bioethics of hESR has led to controversies, not only in the West, but also in Asian countries. After the 2001 US-moratorium on the public funding of hESR, however, various Asian countries jumped into the 'bioethical vacuum', claiming that Asian countries do not suffer from Western religious scruples about using human embryos in research. Nevertheless, controversies around the 'donation' of oocytes, the trade and barter of embryos, stem cell research trials, and the upheavals around human embryonic cloning and xeno-transplantation in Asia have attracted global media attention.

As international guidelines are being adopted into diverging economic, political and socio-cultural contexts in Asia, the question arises on what basis these guidelines are adopted to national and regional contexts, whom they are formulated by, how they are implemented, and by what authority. Diverging economic circumstances may lead policy-makers to introduce lenient research regulation, while patients that lack access to healthcare may be tempted to co-operate in research under pressure. The various legal and regulatory set-ups adopted by governments, private enterprises and hospitals in Asia may lead to various regulatory practices and the sanctions on violation may differ starkly according to location and political context.

This social-science approach to the institutional ramification of hESR in the PRC, S-Korea and Japan focuses on the following aspects:

a) Transnational: Bioethical decisions made in one country affect those made in others. This research therefore explores the connections between those decisions;

b) Organisational: Mapping of co-operation networks (government, private companies, venture capital, WHO, joint-ventures, universities);

c) Bioethical: Overview of bioethics guidelines used by governments, medical associations, private companies and their impact on research;

d) Discursive: the registration of the multiple discussions relevant to the bioethics of hESR.

This research makes use of interviews, discourse analysis, archives, and the internet. It comprises the following elements:

  • A country analysis: population, healthcare system, economic situation, etc.
  • Web studies of discussions on hESR and inventory of companies advertising with stem cell therapies;
  • Study of guidelines published by governments and associations;
  • Interviews with those who work/ make use of IVF clinics/ stem cell research labs;
  • Interviews with regulators and bioethics committees, members of NGOs, social movements;
  • Debate-seminars, a new approach to public debate and data collection.

The research presented in this fellowship application covers the creation of a new teaching course, organisation of debates and two conferences (of which one is set), engagement with stakeholders in hESR, and the development of a new method of social-science research: debate seminars. Debate seminars make use of the various views of public debate, the structure of focus point discussion, the engagement of interviews and the dynamics of actor initiative. At the same time they are a rich source of data useful in discourse analysis, and comparative research.

This comparative approach sheds light on discussions relevant to the regulation of hESR in three national contexts. It shows how variously coloured governments (democratic, socialist, autocratic), universities and companies formulate their bioethical views in relation to various interests and illuminates how they are ignored, interpreted or skewed in an institutional contexts. It explores the formulations of bioethical guidelines, the way they function under different political and economic regimes, and how hESR is justified internationally and at home. These insights are crucial to researchers who want to keep their trade respectable, both at home and abroad. In other words, this research explores the internal and external faces and practices of bioethics in action.

Current projects

Margaret Sleeboom-Faulkner's project looks at how international guidelines are being adopted into diverging economic, political and socio-cultural contexts in Asia, and Japan and China in particular.

This comparative research asks on what basis these guidelines are adopted in a socialist developing country such as China and in a wealthy, democratic bureaucracy, such as Japan. She investigates the formulation and implementation of regulations by visiting laboratories and clinics, interviewing clinicians and clients about the donation embryos and oocytes, observing scientists that handle the 'materials' and analysing public debates. Studying how bioethics guidelines created through the combined efforts by governments, medical associations and private companies impact research and international research cooperation, the research expects, first, to provide insights into how scientists, publics and governments deal with regulatory and bioethical problems in very different economic, political and cultural contexts. Second, by focusing on particular international research collaborations, the research aims to acquire insight into the conditions under wish transnational joint research efforts and international research developments flourish.

Se-young Hwang's project focuses on the South Korean context. Her research is particularly interested in the constant and emerging loopholes in the very organising process of 'ethical enterprise' in the area of stem cell research in Korea. This requires investigation into various discourses and practices that are in different ways related to legitimation of (bio)ethical inquiries and conduct. The research focuses on three bioethical sites - bioethics expertise, stem cell scientists, and the public, by regarding them as forming multiple layers and qualities of cultural interface in stem cell research. The investigation consists of three parts: i) critical analysis of recent development in ethics for stem cell researchers; ii) mapping bioethical expertise: centre-margin, academic-civil relationship, iii) Problems in participation: finding loopholes in bioethical interfaces.

Achim Roseman's research compares competing approaches of experimental stem cell based research on Spinal Cord Injury, across the contexts of Taiwan and mainland China. It explores the ways in which distinct modes of scientific, ethical, and capital-oriented strategies and regulations impact on the creation of scientific results and evidence, clinical research practice and the creation of trust and legitimacy among national and international partners.

Project events and reports

Korea workshop report, 17 December 2009

Present and future of stem cell research: Korea and beyond [PDF 30.44KB]

Kyoto workshop report, 29 November 2008

The Life Sciences in Society: High Hopes and Difficult Issues [PDF 93.68KB]



   April 10-11. The Cultural Politics of the Life Sciences in Asia: Opportunities, risks and the changing body, Socio-Genetic Marginalisation in Asia Programme (SMAP), International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden, Netherland. (see programme)


   January 9-10. International Science and Bioethics Collaborations Colloquium, CRASSH, Cambridge


   December 15. Conference (download programme)