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Ongoing Obokata story seeks out scandal

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

The paper, titled “Stimulus-triggered fate conversion of somatic cells into pluripotency,” was accepted by the British science journal Nature on Dec. 20, 2013, and published online on Jan. 29, 2014. The authors were listed as Haruko Obokata, Teruhiko Wakayama, Yoshiki Sasai, Koji Kojima, Martin P. Vacanti, Hitoshi Niwa, Masayuki Yamato and Charles A. Vacanti.

You can read it here, but be forewarned, you’re in for some heavy going: www.nature.com/nature/journal/v505/n7485/full/nature12968.html .

On July 2, after about five months of accusations and recriminations over the veracity of Obokata’s findings, Nature announced the paper would be retracted. The incident is now being touted by some media — which appear to have overlooked, or forgotten, the famous Piltdown Man fossil hoax of a century ago — as being the third of sekai sandai netsuzo (the world’s three great frauds), the other two being a 2001 paper on single-molecule semiconductors by German physicist Jan Hendrik Schon of Bell Laboratories, and papers in 2004 and 2005 on human embryonic stem cells by Korean researcher Hwang Woo-suk of Seoul National University.

While the question over what happened, or didn’t happen, awaits conclusive verification under the unforgiving lens of a microscope, the media have not wasted time poking into the background of Obokata, a guest researcher at the quasi-governmental Riken, an abbreviation of Rikagaku Kenkyujo (Institute of Physical and Chemical Research), and primary author of the controversial piece.

For those who have been waiting for the other shoe to drop in what initially began as a drab scientific affair, the tabloid media, as they are wont to do, have unleashed a veritable avalanche of footwear. Their reports include innuendos of fiscal impropriety that, as one magazine suggested, might even land the 31-year-old Obokata behind bars.

How much money are we looking at here? Asahi Geino (July 3) alleged that some ¥600 million in public funds were put to illegitimate use — everything from a rotating laboratory chair billed at ¥246,000 to ¥840,000 for installation of special gas tubing and ¥293,000 for a new notebook PC.

After trashing Obokata in a four-page article a week earlier, Asahi Geino (July 10) shifted its aim to Obokata’s boss, Yoshiki Sasai, the director of the Laboratory for Organogenesis and Neurogenesis at Riken.

A source at Kyoto University alleged that when Sasai moved to Riken from Kyoto U., it appears he was planning to use “Sasai gals” like Obokata to form a “harem” — and never mind whether they had any ability to do research.

“The chances for a paper authored by Obokata to appear in Nature were low; it would have been better if the paper had been submitted under Sasai’s byline,” said the source.

Takahiro Otsuki, a professor at Sapporo International University, told the magazine he supposed Sasai might have gained inspiration from politicians such as Ichiro Ozawa or Junichiro Koizumi, who attracted media attention by mobilizing a contingent of vocal female supporters.

“Japanese are overly constrained and inflexible toward the principles of competition, and may have arbitrarily convinced themselves that some sort of ‘international standard’ exists,” remarked Otsuki. “But hasn’t the adoption of merit-based promotions by ordinary companies been a huge failure here? Sure, in specialized fields such as sports, winning and losing is clear-cut; but how can companies apply merit-based systems? I don’t think such a thing is intrinsic to Japanese society.”

Writing in the July issue of the monthly Shincho 45, Minetaro Obata focused on the murky dealings of a Shinjuku-based company named CellSeed Inc., with ties to some of Obokata’s co-authors, and whose shares are alleged to have soared in value about the same time Obokata’s paper appeared in Nature. The company had been investigated previously for insider trading.

Shukan Gendai (July 5) went so far as to raise the possibility of Obokata’s arrest.

“During part of the research, Obokata stayed in a luxury hotel, and questions have been raised that her accommodations were paid for with research funds,” an unnamed science reporter is quoted as saying. “She is also reported to have taken some 55 business trips with Dr. Sasai. If those outlays were found to be gratuitous to the research, it’s possible this will be treated as fraudulent appropriation.”

The magazine also examined the possibility of her facing either of two charges under the criminal code: One was use of deception to obstruct the business of a person, which stipulates punishment of up to three years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to ¥500,000. The other was criminal fraud, which provides for imprisonment of up to 10 years. A person found guilty may also be required to make financial restitution.

Perhaps even worse than the accusations over the misuse of funds, however, are concerns that tissue engineering research in Japan may have been dealt a mortal blow.

“While it’s important to get to the bottom of the STAP problem, it will be necessary for Japan to revamp its educational system and the state of affairs at universities that made it possible for an inexperienced researcher such as Obokata to achieve such prominence,” opined Tokyo University of Tokyo researcher Masahiro Kami. “Without fundamental changes, Japan’s science has no future.”

  • Earl Kinmonth

    “Asahi Geino (July 3) alleged that some ¥600 million in public funds were
    put to illegitimate use — everything from a rotating laboratory chair
    billed at ¥246,000 to ¥840,000 for installation of special gas tubing
    and ¥293,000 for a new notebook PC.” Innuendo. I’ve had Japanese government research grants. If the receipts are there, if the hardware is there, no problem. You cannot just go out and “buy stuff.” There are complicated procedures and approvals to go through. The very fact that Asahi Geino can site very specific amounts suggests strongly that everything was above board. There would be an issue only if there was a receipt for 293,000 yen to buy a notebook but the money had in fact been used for something else. Government procurement procedures do not encourage bargain hunting. They effectively preclude trying to get the best price. The statement by Kami Masahiro is silly. Fraud and malfeasance are not explained solely by inexperience. Neither is unique to Japan.

    • Warren Lauzon

      I thought the “special gas tubing” example they used was especially stupid. Things like that are hardly unusual for a high tech lab, especially if you are dealing with many of the less common gasses – some of which can be poisonous, corrosive, or easily contaminated.

      And it looks like supply and procurement have not changed much in Japan since I left there several years back. Many of the “approved vendor” procedures I saw were not based on price or quality, but on the Old Boy Network, and in a few cases outright bribery (usually with “special favors” rather than money, which could be traced).

      • Earl Kinmonth

        I’m amazed that I can buy books through Amazon. It used to be that for foreign books you had to use an “approved vendor” which generally meant one single company and a 200-plus percent mark up. The “special glass tubing” example was indeed singularly stupid. But, given that Asahi Geino is probably the most down market of the weekly magazines specializing in stories about who is between the sheets with someone who is not their spouse, their reporters are probably more familiar with the kit at love hotels than in laboratories.

      • Warren Lauzon

        Yeah, it is like National Inquirer reporting on science (unless you consider UFO’s as science).

  • Nozferatu

    Someone doesn’t like her OR Riken has much to hide…either way, it’s a classic scapegoat situation and happens all the time in the US.

    • Warren Lauzon

      I think that both, in a way. Riken probably has a LOT to hide, and that she is also being used to take the fall – and in fact was probably being used from the beginning.

  • Warren Lauzon

    It seems to me that Obokata is being used here as the scapegoat here. Possibly her biggest mistake was believing that in an almost totally male dominated society that she was actually “part of the team”.

  • j gross

    Any decent Library Science masters graduate in the USA knows the basics of 1. conducting original research 2. citing your sources. Science grads know that lab research involves keeping detailed lab notes. Unfortunately, in the USA it is well known that pressure exists at the University level in regard to “publish or perish.” In the usa, University Professors are pressured to write a number of published papers to get tenure. The reality is that it is very easy to plagiarize from existing published papers to embellish a paper. Ethics are not always the first priority…

    • Warren Lauzon

      Plagiary is probably more common than a lot people would like to admit in academic papers. There are also many stories (almost impossible to verify) of professors stealing their students work from around the world. I think the mistake would be to think that this is peculiar to Japan.

  • SBSdroid

    Really? Using extremely dubious quotes from a tabloid? I had to verify that this wasn’t the Japan Times Community Page. If you are going to use a tabloid as a primary source, please first consider whether the information seems reasonable.

    As used here, the reader would be lead to believe that ¥293,000 is somehow an excessive amount to spend on a notebook computer, yet it is nearly the exact price of the current low-end 15″ Macbook Pro with maxed out RAM and storage (¥293,400 minus tax: 2.0GHz processor, 16GB RAM, 1TB storage).

    Judging by the types of computers you see used during press conferences, Macbook Pros appear to be popular among researchers, and 1 TB of internal storage is completely appropriate to the work being done by Obokata. Of course there are many ways to spec out a notebook and arrive at the quoted price.

    OMG Obokata spent a reasonable amount of money on pipettes and microscopes!!!111