Keep watching wrongful researches and institutes 不正研究や組織に厳しい目を

One year after infamous STAP cell controversy STAP細胞疑惑から1年

  Last year, the nationwide uproar over a paper on Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency cells (STAP cells) uncovered some of the problems inherent in Japan’s science community. One is about morality of scientists. Another is about the way the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN) ought to be as Japan's representative natural science research institution. As to the STAP cells in question, it has been concluded that they are actually identical to what is today known as embryonic stem cells (ES cells). The paper itself has been withdrawn. However, that cannot put an end to the turmoil. The true nature of the matter is that a paper has been forged by a researcher at an institute globally reputed as RIKEN and that the way the institute addressed the fabrication was quite poor. The existence or non-existence of STAP cells is not the issue.



Lack of morality 倫理観の欠如

  It was in January 2014 that the paper on STAP cells written by Ms. Haruko Obokata, then a RIKEN researcher, was published for the first time in a science journal. She was played up as so-called “rikejo” (women engaged in science) in various circles, helping to bring such women into the limelight across the country. However, some doubt began to be cast about the authenticity of her paper. That doubt did not stop there but spilled over to involve the doctoral thesis she had written in her student days. After months of investigations, RIKEN acknowledged that Ms. Obokata’s paper contained fabricated and manipulated images, and infringed copyrights. Her paper was withdrawn from the British scientific journal Nature on July 2, 2014. On October 7 that year, Waseda University decided to retract her Ph.D. with a grace period.



  One may argue that her immaturity as a researcher alone cannot fully explain what she did in her research. The question remains if ES cells got erroneously mixed in her experimental process or did someone intentionally bring and mix them? The fabrication of the paper as well as those unanswered questions may well induce one to infer that Ms. Obokata lacked morality as a researcher. Even if she had mistaken ES cells for STAP cells, her lack of morality cannot be dismissed given the injustice she did in her paper. In future, every necessary measure must be taken to ensure ethics of researchers.



  A more thorough check of research papers should be another pressing need along with ethical education. Pundits say that it is next to impossible to eradicate acts of dishonesty in research.  But still research institutes should work harder to get rid of wrongdoings by researchers. At the same time, we must keep watching what they will do when dishonesty is detected.


RIKEN bitterly criticized 批判相次いだ理研の対応

RIKEN to which Ms. Obokata belonged was repeatedly criticized for its lukewarm handling of her case. In particular, many people still criticize it for not having elucidated all the suspicions that had surfaced. RIKEN initially maintained that Ms. Obokata’s immaturity had resulted in her wrongdoing and retained the posts of her bosses, including Mr. Yoshiki Sasayama, the deputy director of its Center for Developmental Biology (CDB), who were engaged in the STAP cell research. There is no denying that Mr. Sasayama’s suicide made it harder to unravel the whole truth. However, RIKEN obviously tried to evade its responsibility as an organization.



  It has since been not fully positive to resolve all the problems involved. At one point, for instance, it allowed Ms. Obokata to join its experiments aimed to verify the existence of STAP cells. What it has been criticized for is its inadequate assumption of responsibility rather than elucidation of scientific truth. In the wake of the incidence, RIKEN had its government subsidy cut by 1.6 billion yen, but it is only 3% of what it received the previous year. Given the persistent criticism against it, the government seems to have belittled the impact of the incidence. If RIKEN had been properly managed and its researches had been closely supervised, those wrongdoings and the loss of the researcher who had contributed to the development of Japan’s science community might have been prevented. Japanese people should take a serious view of what happened at RIKEN and turn their stern eyes to improprieties on the part of both researchers and research institutes.



 (Written by: Naoto Takeda)