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Science

STAP scandal a test of Japan's scientific integrity

TOKYO -- Four months after its discovery was announced, a much-lauded method for producing stem cells has vanished into thin air, casting a shadow over Japan's status as a science powerhouse.

     The method, called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP, was thought to have upended the conventional wisdom in biology, but the excitement quickly evaporated amid reports of fabricated data. Instead, the story became one of the inherent difficulties in science, and shortcomings in Japan's training of young researchers.

     How was such shoddy work able to slip past Riken, one of the country's most prestigious research institutes, and find its way onto the pages of a highly regarded scientific journal, Nature?

Pressure to perform

To avoid leaks, the research was kept secret, even at Riken, until shortly before the results were announced. Many experts considered the idea of STAP plausible. The papers' co-authors included well-known names, lending credibility with reviewers at Nature. Haruko Obokata, who led the research team, revealed the results to the press with much fanfare.

     The STAP affair has many similarities to past instances of scientific misconduct.

     In 1981, Mark Spector, a graduate student at Cornell University in the U.S. was found to have fabricated data in cancer research. Working under a prominent mentor, he produced a slew of positive results. A colleague discovered the fraud after examining the samples, but Spector denied any wrongdoing. The incident helped spur the U.S. government to create the Office of Research Integrity to detect and prevent research misconduct.

     In February 2000, Jan Hendrik Schon was found to have faked research data at Bell Labs in the U.S. Fierce competition to develop new superconductors and the practice of using research results for PR purposes were fingered as problems.

     Riken, an institute affiliated with the Japanese government that handles many important national projects, has a culture that does not tolerate failure. It hand-picks young researchers, but those that do not get their work published soon find themselves out of a job.

Who's minding the store?

For the past decade or so, Japan has boosted its research budget despite its fiscal troubles, and it has worked to promote young scientists and assess their research fairly. But fighting for grant money takes up much of senior researchers' time, making it difficult to foster young talent. Groundbreaking research comes with risks, but there has not been enough focus on dealing with issues such as scientific misconduct.

     To minimize the risk of unethical behavior, an environment in which researchers can express their doubts freely is more important than avoiding competition or forcing researchers to submit more progress reports.

     Compiling a database of results would allow researchers to check suspicious findings and would also be useful for obtaining patents.

     The media must also learn to treat scientific announcements with a degree of skepticism, rather than simply taking them at face value.

     In seeking to strike a balance between expediting research and managing risk, it is important to learn lessons from episodes such as the STAP cell scandal. Dismissing them as the product of a few bad apples amounts to malfeasance as grave as any attributed to Obokata or her colleagues.

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