Reform panel spreads blame wide for debacle

Severe penalties sought for Riken, Obokata over STAP scandal

by Masaaki Kameda

Staff Writer

A third-party reform panel set up by the government-backed Riken institute has called for severe penalties for stem cell researcher Haruko Obokata and her supervisors, and for the biology center where she works to be disbanded.

The proposal was submitted Thursday to Riken President Ryoji Noyori in light of the research misconduct uncovered in two high-profile research papers Obokata’s team published in the British science journal Nature earlier this year.

“Considering the scale of the scandal, who is to blame and how to take responsibility is extremely important,” Teruo Kishi, head of the outside panel, told reporters in Tokyo after submitting the report.

“Obokata was the only individual found to have committed research misconduct by Riken’s investigative panel,” he said. “We concluded she should be given severe punishment.”

But Kishi stopped short of mentioning how harsh the penalties should be and said that a disciplinary panel at Riken is handling the matter, which revolved around the Obokata team’s purported discovery of “STAP cells,” described in the papers as a new kind of stem cell that is easier to produce.

Kishi said Yoshiki Sasai, Obokata’s supervisor and deputy director of the Riken Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe where Obokata works, also deserves punishment.

“Given Sasai is a co-author (of the first paper) and a corresponding author of the second paper (published in Nature in January) as well as Obokata’s supervisor, it’s natural that he receive severe punishment,” Kishi said.

Kishi also blamed Masatoshi Takeichi, director of the CDB, and proposed that the executive directors in charge of research and compliance at Riken be replaced, and that the CDB be disbanded.

“If Riken will seek to set up a new entity (to replace the CDB), the director and deputy directors should be replaced. We propose rebuilding its structure and reassembling the areas of study,” Kishi said.

As for President Noyori, Kishi said the panel needs him to rebuild the CDB.

“I’m sure the president will think about the various things needed after that,” Kishi said.

The six-member panel was set up in April to explore ways to prevent research misconduct in response to the allegations leveled at Obokata.

In a statement, Noyori said Riken would take the panel’s proposal seriously. “We will implement effective action plans to prevent research misconduct after examining the proposal closely,” Noyori said.

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