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2014年6月 8日 (日)

(社説)STAP騒動 理研は再発防ぐ対応を

June 07, 2014
EDITORIAL: Riken needs more convincing steps to prevent research misconduct
(社説)STAP騒動 理研は再発防ぐ対応を

Once hailed as a great discovery that could require biology textbooks to be rewritten, a study on a new method of creating stem cells has returned to a sea of hypotheses where countless ideas are bobbing up and down.

Haruko Obokata, a biologist at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology, and all the other key authors of the main article on the newly created cells have agreed to retract the research, published in January in the journal Nature.

The high-profile manner in which the claim of discovering STAP cells, for stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, was announced drew much public attention to the research. As it has turned out, however, the study has no solid scientific basis. The research should be retracted.

This is a sad coda to the STAP story. But the process leading to the denouement has rather indicated the health of the Japanese scientific community.

Like the immune system that reacts to threatening substances, the scientific community has demonstrated an ability to detect and remove a flawed study.

The community is not a clean room. The community has to deal with a considerable number of false, or even fraudulent, claims of “new discoveries.”

But science has achieved credibility by establishing an effective system in which claims made by researchers are examined and assessed by others for verification.

After serious questions were raised about the STAP study, many researchers exchanged opinions, mainly via the Internet, and helped make a quick collective verdict. The process even raised hopes for a new approach to making effective use of the “collective wisdom” of scientists.

In contrast, the way Riken handled the questions raised about the study has cast serious doubts on its loyalty to the basic principles of science. The research institute’s response to the problems that have come to light in connection with the study has been grossly insufficient.

That’s simply because Riken has failed to make serious efforts to identify the factors behind this misconduct and work out effective remedial measures.

As things stand now, the STAP saga will end up being a simple research scandal and make no contribution to the scientific community.

Riken’s internal investigation committee focused its examination of the study on six of the many alleged irregularities and found two of them to represent misconduct. The in-house panel of experts didn’t make any further probe into the case.

The panel’s mission was to swiftly determine whether research misconduct was committed. Its work failed to glean any important lesson that can be useful to prevent a recurrence. It didn’t try to find out background causes of the misconduct or the reasons for the co-authors’ failure to detect problems with the study in the process of compiling the articles.

The inadequacy of the investigation was bitterly criticized both by the committee of outside experts for reform of Riken and at a meeting to explain the probe’s results to Riken researchers.

A wide range of problems concerning the entire organization have come to the fore, including the ways Riken deals with personnel affairs and research projects.

When Obokata was hired by the institute, for instance, no letter of recommendation was submitted, even though its employment rules require two such letters.

While related patent applications were made very quickly, few open discussions on the content of the study were held during the process of producing the articles.

Special treatment in employment runs against the common sense of the scientific community, which places great importance on equality and objectivity.

In its single-minded pursuit of high-profile achievements, Riken, one of the nation’s leading centers of scientific research, appears to have lost the crucial power of self-purification that the scientific community has developed over time.

Even if it needs to continue work to replicate the STAP research results, Riken should put higher priority on efforts to learn vital lessons from the episode and develop convincing measures for preventing a recurrence. That’s the only way to restore confidence in Riken and its researchers.

--The Asahi Shimbun, June 6


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