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2014年4月 3日 (木)


April 02, 2014
EDITORIAL: Riken cannot blame Obokata alone in STAP cell scandal

Is the Riken national research institute in a hurry to bring the curtain down on the scandal over supposedly groundbreaking studies on stem cells? We cannot dispel this suspicion.

On April 1, Riken’s internal investigative committee concluded in its final report that Haruko Obokata had committed wrongdoing in the “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency” (STAP) research led by her at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology (CDB). The committee, set up in February after many questions were raised about articles published by Obokata in the prestigious British science journal Nature, accused her of misconduct, including “fabrication” and “doctoring” of research data.

In her statement, Obokata vehemently challenged the committee’s conclusion and expressed her intent to lodge a formal complaint.

The committee did not examine Obokata’s research papers in their entirety. Rather, it limited the investigation to six points and merely looked for evidence of misconduct as opposed to innocent mistakes. With Obokata denying the allegations, public opinion is likely divided on whether the committee has sufficient evidence with which to accuse her of wrongdoing.

Riken intends to consider taking disciplinary action against Obokata and others responsible, and start establishing measures to prevent a recurrence. But without a full explanation of what really happened, we cannot possibly expect the institute to come up with effective countermeasures.

The government was expected to grant the status of “special national research and development corporation” to deserving cutting-edge research institutes this month. Riken was the top contender for this designation. Could this be the reason why Riken was in a rush to put an end to the Obokata affair?

And isn’t Riken placing excessive blame on Obokata alone?

What did her co-authors--older and more experienced than the young, 30-year-old stem-cell biologist--do or not do? Where did the problems lay with respect to lab work and the management of research data and materials?

Instead of relying only on the internal investigative committee, Riken should bring in a third-party committee and publish its findings. Without doing so, the institute will never regain its credibility.

Advances in science have been made possible by responsible scientists contributing their papers to reputable academic journals and accepting objective criticism from their peers. The research institutes to which those scientists belonged used to play a relatively inconspicuous role.

But in this day and age of massive research funding being budgeted for survival in cutthroat international competition, universities and research institutes are now being forced to fulfill a new responsibility.

Specifically, they must guarantee the “quality” of their researchers and the research they conduct.

It has been reported that Obokata kept only two notebooks documenting her three-year lab work and that she saw nothing wrong with copying images from her past data. Aside from her alleged misconduct, such behavior would be utterly unthinkable to any self-respecting researcher.

Neither the university that conferred a doctorate upon her, nor Riken that hired her as a lead researcher, can escape responsibility as an organization.

If Obokata’s co-authors who were in a position to give her guidance had taken a look at her lab notes, perhaps this whole sorry mess could have been prevented.

This blunder in the field of basic research followed a series of fiascoes in clinical studies, including one concerning a hypertension drug.

Ensuring the quality of research is an urgent task of the nation’s scientific community.

--The Asahi Shimbun, April 2


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