Conference surprise: Gene-edited children!

Member of the BROKEX Advisory Group, Dr Joy Yueyue Zhang, told me that she’d present at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong. I made a note in my calendar. Then I didn’t think more about it.

Right before the summit commenced, the internet blew up. A Chinese scientist claimed that he had created the world’s first gene-edited children. Twins, no less. The scientist, He Jiankui from Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, would present his finding at the summit in Hong Kong.

As a former bureaucrat in the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, I imagined the frantic backroom discussions before the opening of the Summit. I watched the opening webcast this morning. The strategy seemed to be to continue as if nothing had happened. Hon. Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of HK SAR, kicked off the conference by promising research investments and collaborations with the Mainland of unprecedented scale and ambition. Leaders of the Academy of Sciences of Hong Kong, The Royal Society, and the U.S. National Academy of Medicine followed up with polite remarks.

Joy Zhang has written compellingly about the tension between what she terms “post-hoc pragmatism” in STEM in the PRC and the need to adhere to regulatory procedures to gain international recognition. Many Chinese researchers want to get rid of an image of the “Wild East,” where there are no ethical boundaries placed on research. This is not confined to the hard sciences: Anthropologists, for example, have called for institutionalized ethical reviews.

While Professor He proudly presented his results on YouTube, many of his Chinese colleagues were furious. A letter co-signed by more than 100 Chinese scientists reads: “We can only use the word “insane” (疯狂) to describe the experiment conducted directly on human beings.”

The Chinese authorities seem to run with the “crazy scientist”-explanation, denying knowledge about the experiment. This may do more harm than good to the frustrated Chinese researchers — it gives the impression that they operate in an institutional vacuum when it comes to ethics.

The example illustrates how institutions can be matchmakers or deal breakers. Unless there are institutional third parties that independently guarantee ethical standards when Chinese and foreign researchers work together, collaboration may be impossible. Again, this challenge is not confined to STEM: With the introduction of GDPR and no equivalent regulation in China (yet), European social scientists can’t hand over data with personal information to colleagues in China.

UPDATE: He Jiankui’s institution SUSTech denies any involvement with the experiment. (I’ll stop updating now, 1:30 pm HK time).

Heidi Østbø Haugen, Guangzhou 27 November 2018.

Photo by Tom Vanhoof on Unsplash.

Photo by Tom Vanhoof on Unsplash.

Contract with the ERC signed!

As it turns out, signing a contract with the ERC is a marathon, not a sprint. The message from the ERC that they would fund BROKEX was delivered without much fanfare (“your proposal has been retained for funding in this call”). In fact, I had to read the email several times to be sure that it delivered good news.

Then there were a bunch of Ts to cross and Is to dot. Yet, the signature date for the final contract with the ERC set to November 17 2018 seemed so far away. Surely, we’d be able to work things out way before then!

Today, November 16, I was informed that the BROKEX grant agreement and been signed and counter-signed. We’re entering a new phase where building a team and collecting data is the main focus. I’m very excited to be recruiting two postdocs and a PhD student to work with me on this project!

The signing itself is done electronically. It did not make for good visuals. Instead, I include an image of a genius patch they sold at the corner store outside my home in Guangzhou when the school year began. They stopped selling it after students had moved from summer holiday mode to bright-and-studious mode. I too am definitely awake now that the actual research can begin!

Heidi Østbø Haugen. Guangzhou 16 November 2018.

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Brokers, brokers' brokers, and termites

A foreigner hunting for a home in Guangzhou inevitably relies on brokers. The street that runs along Sun Yat-sen University’s North gate has more housing brokers than restaurants, many of them located right next door to each other. I entered three such shops, drank the glasses of lukewarm water placed in my hand, and added them on WeChat.

Offers soon started flowing into my WeChat account. Duplicates of blurry photos taken in dimly lit rooms proved that each house owner worked with several brokers. The broker charges a month’s worth of rent, half form the owner and half from the tenant. They work for a small number of companies, and offices within the same company compete to close deals. In order not to lose their spirit in the face of tough competition, they start the day with a half-hour session of loud upbeat music, pep talks, and slogan chants. Sometimes hundreds of employees gather to hear the company founder or regional manager give an inspirational speech.

Sitting across from a lovely couple in their 30s to sign the lease contract with them, I was felt relief that the intense interaction with housing brokers soon would come to an end. I thought.

When we moved into the apartment, it looked nothing like the slick place we’d viewed two days earlier. It reeked of cigarettes and alcohol, and it turned out it had been rented out through AirBnB. I started doubting that the couple were the real owners — who would turn their own apartment into a party space? My suspicion was confirmed when we needed to register with the police. The real owner, a middle aged woman who lived in another city, had to be with us. The agents did their best to keep us apart, and to hide information about what we actually paid in rent from the actual owner. We had to play along to get the papers we needed to legally live in the apartment: Our down payment was already in the no-longer-so-lovely couple’s bank account.

My Chinese vocabulary related to plumbing and electricity was already quite advanced after having rented apartments in China twice before. In our new apartment, the housing brokers addressed water and power-related emergencies effectively. However, when we informed them that termites (白蚁 has been added to my vocabulary) were eating up the apartment from the inside, they were completely uninterested. Eventually, the apartment will be completely gutted by the termites, but by then the brokers are long gone. And so will we.

Heidi Østbø Haugen. GUangzhou 9 November 2018.

Enjoying the view from our temporary home.

Enjoying the view from our temporary home.


Banner photo by Dustin Lee on Unsplash.