A Chat with Dr. Lay Ching Chai on Fostering Responsible Conduct in Research within Southeast Asia

Dr. Lay Ching Chai

Dr. Lay Ching Chai is the Head of the Centre of Research Services, and a Senior Lecturer of the Institute of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, University of Malaya, Malaysia. She is also a Member of the Research Ethics Committee, and the Institutional Biosafety and Biosecurity Committee of the University of Malaya.

In addition to her roles in academia, Dr. Chai is Chairperson of the Young Scientists Network-Academy of Sciences Malaysia (YSN-ASM), a Science Advisor on the Scientific Advisory Panel of ILSI SEA Region, and a member of the ILSI SEA Region Scientific Integrity Working Group.

Dr. Chai has been working actively in promoting scientific and research integrity among young scientists. In this chat with ILSI SEA Region, Dr. Chai shares how she initiated the Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) program in Malaysia, and how this has since developed into a growing RCR movement and regional program implemented across the 10 ASEAN countries.

Q: You have been closely involved in raising awareness of responsible conduct in scientific research among young scientists in Southeast Asia. Could you share with us the journey that you and your colleagues have charted in this important area?

Dr. Chai: Southeast Asia is a dynamic region, with many developing countries that are active in advancing science, technology and innovation. In the push for scientific advancement, there may have been less focus on best practices and responsible conduct in research (RCR). In 2013, a training workshop titled Educational Institute for Responsible Science was organized by Academy of Sciences Malaysia, Malaysia’s Higher Education Leadership Academy and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. It was a starting point for dialogue and discussion on integrity in science and research in the region. As one of the workshop participants, I felt strongly that this was a very positive direction, but much work would still be needed to create a values-driven research ecosystem that prioritizes research integrity.

Since 2013, my colleagues and I have continued to play an active part in promoting RCR not only in Malaysia, but in other Southeast Asian countries too. With a growing movement towards research integrity in Malaysia, a RCR program was formalized in 2015 for the Young Scientists Network–Academy of Sciences Malaysia (YSN–ASM) with support and funding from the Academy of Sciences Malaysia. Another step forward was the development and publication in 2018 of the Malaysian Educational Module on Responsible Conduct in Research. This module is available as an online educational resource for young students, researchers, as well as lecturers who are teaching research ethics and integrity.

In 2019, the initiation of a RCR program with the endorsement of ASEAN was a key milestone. The ASEAN RCR Program provides education and training on RCR in each of the 10 ASEAN countries, and has the goal of formulating a regional RCR framework in the science and research ecosystem within ASEAN. I am happy to see that, over the past 9 years, we have managed to raise awareness around the importance of research integrity, and that it is now recognized and promoted at the regional level.

Q: These achievements are indeed impressive. Could you share some “secrets to success” that have led to the growing RCR movement in Southeast Asia?

Dr. Chai: I would say that one “secret to success” may be our strategy to take both a bottom-up and a top-down approach to fostering integrity in scientific research. A good example of our bottom-up approach is the establishment of the ASEAN Young Scientists Network (ASEAN YSN), which aims to build connectivity, nurture leadership, and foster research integrity among the young scientific community. The bottom-up approach seeks to educate and raise awareness, and this is achieved through ASEAN YSN’s flagship programs, including the ASEAN RCR Program. Through the ASEAN YSN, we hope to build a platform where talented young scientists and researchers around the region can work together to establish a strategic framework that advances science and promotes RCR in Southeast Asia.

In tandem, the top-down approach focuses on engaging government and public stakeholders at the national, regional and international levels. To effect the change that is needed to support and strengthen research integrity, RCR needs to be embedded within national and regional policies. Through our active engagement with government and public stakeholders, we have achieved important outcomes, such as contribution to the publication of the Malaysian Code of Responsible Conduct in Research (2nd Ed, 2021). At the regional level, recognition and approval of the ASEAN RCR Program by the ASEAN Committee on Science and Technology is another important achievement.

Q: Looking ahead, are there new or emerging areas within the field of research integrity that you might like to touch on?

Dr. Chai: One area that is emerging in our region is the open science movement, which is perhaps more established in other regions such as Europe. The open science movement advocates for open dissemination of, and access to, all scientific knowledge and data. While open science may encourage transparency, there could also be different view-points among stakeholders on what data should or should not be made publicly available. More dialogue and discussion among all stakeholders would help in the exchange of perspectives on how open science and open data could be effectively managed.

Conflict of interest (COI) is another topic that could be further explored. Although COI is not a new issue, it is increasingly relevant due to the growing importance of public-private partnerships in scientific research and translational science. While there is currently no consensus on how to define COI, perhaps one approach could be to look at how COI is managed and communicated, within the context of multi-stakeholder collaborations, such as public-private partnerships, in science and research.

Ethical and safety concerns in emerging technologies which have seen active research and development globally, such as gain-of-function research that involves genetic modification of crops and food animals, lab-grown meat, insect proteins etc, also need to be addressed. Some questions to be asked include: What are the risks of genetic modification to nature? How should safety be assessed and what would be considered safe? How should risks be governed and mitigated? Researchers not only need to ensure that food-based research is designed and conducted with the highest standards of integrity, it is also critical to avoid potential misinformation or disinformation that may result in negative impact on public health.