Peter-Paul Verbeek: 'address the ethical issues of controversial DNA testing'

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A month ago, Dutch news outlet RTL Nieuws and investigative journalism platform Follow the Money reported that academic journals had withdrawn two studies due to ethical concerns. The studies in question made use of DNA material collected from Uyghur Muslims, a persecuted minority in China, which raises the question whether the material was obtained on a voluntary basis or not. Two researchers from the Erasmus Medical Center were involved in the research, but the institution's board did not see any reason for taking disciplinary action.

This week, Follow the Money and RTL Nieuws published some new incriminating data. Through the analysis of twenty academic publications, they discovered evidence of the involvement of Dutch researchers in the development of controversial DNA databanks. The name of Erasmus Medical Centre crops up with some regularity, but the Leiden University Medical Centre and the Netherlands Forensic Institute also appear in the studies.

Chinese police
Some of the studies focused on predicting what someone will look like based on DNA traces. The method is used in the Netherlands to solve criminal investigations, but in China the technology has also been used against minorities and political opponents of the current regime. Ten of the twenty studies analysed are alleged to have been partially funded by the Chinese police. Erasmus MC countered by stating that only Chinese researchers received that funding.

The revelations have led to a political outcry in the Netherlands: political party D66 wants to launch a parliamentary review of the issue, while VVD, the party of current Prime Minister Mark Rutte, proposed that the Minister of Education should take action if the universities can’t see the problem with this type of research. MPs fear that “Dutch fingerprints will be found on instruments of oppression”, Follow the Money reports.

Ethical consequences
What this case reveals is that we have to pay more attention to the ethical impact of academic research, says Peter-Paul Verbeek, philosopher and chair of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Freedom of Academic Practice Committee.

While it’s true that many university faculties have ethical committees in place, they are primarily concerned with the ethics of the research process itself. “If research will be carried out on people or other living things, they have to provide ethical grounding for their methodology,” says Verbeek.

But, according to Verbeek, the real problem is bigger than the question of whether the research methodology itself is ethical. “The issue also entails the potential impact of the research and whether it is likely that research results will be used for purposes that are ethically unacceptable.”

He believes that researchers are responsible for the consequences of their published research. “Academic freedom also entails responsibility,” Verbeek states, noting that, most of the time, they do have a good sense of this responsibility. “many academics are driven not only by intellectual curiosity, but also by social engagement.”

But he also believes that these scientits need more support, so that making a wise decision doesn’t just depend on their individual awareness or even their level of courage. In Verbeek's opinion, this can be done by expanding the tasks assigned to academic ethics committees. “They should look beyond the research method to review the impact of the research and questions concerning the safe use of information.”

Asked if it is really necessary for the Minister of Education to take action, as VVD proposed, Verbeek states: “A government that gets too involved in the details surrounding academic work ultimately undermines scientific endeavour”. But if laws have been violated, then the government must step in. Additionally, according to Verbeek, the government wouldn't be doing any harm if it asked universities to continuously subject what they produce “to ethical review and to set up competent instruments for doing so”.

Meanwhile in Parliament, political parties PvdA, VVD, CDA, and PVV have submitted questions about the matter to the Ministers of Education, Justice, Foreign Affairs and Public Health.