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Expert Panelists Put Under Spotlight

Rescuers have given up their search for miners trapped in a flooded coal pit, but the search for the causes of the accident must continue in earnest.

On August 7, shafts were flooded at Daxing coal mine, South China's Guangdong Province. The official death toll is 123. The consensus is greedy mine owners, who have made money at the cost of human lives, and corrupt local officials, who have stakes in the illegal operations of the lethal colliery, are to be held accountable.

But that is not the whole story. There is much more for us to reflect on.

The dubious role of industrial experts in the accident is a matter that deserves serious investigation. Clarification of their roles will not only reveal more information that may help explain what went wrong, but also provide a lesson for policy-makers as we become increasingly dependent on expert opinions.

Before the coal mine was flooded, a seven-member expert panel was invited by the local government to assess whether operations could continue at the six coal pits, which were threatened by flooding.

The panel came to a rather vague conclusion, implying that mining "in normal conditions" was safe. Had the accident not happened, the public would not have doubted the soundness of the conclusion and integrity of the panel members.

Panel leader Dong Shuning admitted that based on strict safety production standards, operations at those mines should by no means have been allowed, it was revealed in a report by Outlook magazine. "But it would be too cold-blooded for us to disapprove," Dong said.

Dong's reasoning is that the coal pits contribute a lot to local employment and revenue. The six mines employ 1,300 workers and contribute 36 million yuan (US$4.4 million) in tax a year.

Dong said the panel gave its endorsement after the local government suggested their conclusion. In other words, the experts took cues from the authorities when making their minds up.

It is obvious they should have been independent, detached from outside interests and faithful only to scientific standards. They have failed to speak out as they should have, as experts. They have cast doubt on their integrity -- they should feel ashamed.

Of course those experts are not the only group that must reflect on their disgraceful deeds. They are under pressure from the local government officials who invited them to make the assessment.

Even if they disobeyed the officials, other experts might have been invited to make the assessment in their place. Still, lying is not justified.

They must know that voicing their concerns is not only good for their personal reputation, but in the interests of the wider public.

While criticizing the experts, we must find out why they abandoned their conscience and lied.

We may well point the finger at their lack of principles and ignore the loopholes that have the potential to turn a good person into an evil-doer.

The establishment of a system that ensures the independence of experts and protects them from interested parties is of vital importance. We are aware of the importance, but are yet to establish such a system.

(China Daily September 1, 2005)

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