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Bionetworking in Asia – A social science approach to international collaboration, informal exchanges, and responsible innovation in the life sciences

Final Report Summary - BIONETWORKING (Bionetworking in Asia – A social science approach to international collaboration, informal exchanges, and responsible innovation in the life sciences)

The aim of this project on ‘bionetworking’ was to reveal how international cooperation in the life sciences deals with ‘differences’ between research institutions in countries with varying levels of wealth, healthcare systems, and concepts of governance. It has investigated how the different public health concerns and policies, and the different healthcare systems and varying epidemiological patterns shape both the behaviour of collaborators (and other stakeholders) and the establishment of international moral standards that govern this. In China, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, India, and Malaysia, we have used the methods of multi-sited fieldwork, backward mapping, participant observation, network mapping and workshop debates to examine how these differences affect the bargaining position of researchers, patients and scientists and how they are linked to resource availability in the forms of cultural, social, ethical and bio- capital.

This methodological approach helped us to look beyond formal guidelines and regulations to examine the perspectives of researchers, patients and other stakeholders and publics. It aided our understanding of how responsible innovation can be facilitated through the harmonization of international and national research regulation suitable to countries with limited science infrastructures and diverse health needs, and through ‘fair’ international collaboration. We now have published some of our research findings in articles, and the results of our workshops and roundtable debates in briefings to send to various stakeholder groups.

Our findings show that international collaborations in the field of regenerative medicine are motivated by broad considerations, including the availability of scientific expertise, funding, equipment, favorable regulation, and networking considerations. They also show that the commonly held notion that 'the East' and 'less developed countries' are home to inferior biomedical services is an ill-informed oversimplification. Our research shows that providers of 'unproven therapies' in Germany attract medical tourism from Thailand, in Japan from South Korea, and in the USA from Asia and Europe. Rather than the quality of ethics or science in itself, in many cases, it is the regulatory set up developed in the context of the resources of a country that shapes the nature of research and therapy practices. Also, during field research, we found that existing notions of ‘scientific evidence-based’ and ‘rogue’ experimental stem cell research are hotly contested. Fundamental disagreements exist about what is evidence-based therapy, which cannot be explained through a difference in wealth and ‘development’, but has roots in diverging life values and science policies. Our findings suggest that any effective harmonization of the regulation on research and bioethics can only take place by incorporating the views of scientists in all countries engaged in regenerative medicine and taking into account the divergent political and economic dilemmas countries face. If not, regulatory developments will be largely led by internecine competition rather than by a focus on the practical needs and dilemmas faced by scientists, industry and patients.