Reforming Riken

The government-affiliated Riken research institute should heed the June 12 nonbinding report released by a panel of outside experts and undertake concrete reforms. The panel said that behind the research misconduct in the purported discovery of STAP (stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency) cells are structural problems and poor governance at Riken’s Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, where Haruko Obokata, the chief author of the two STAP cells papers, works. It called for disbanding the Kobe center.

The panel pointed out that Riken’s strong desire to achieve a breakthrough that would surpass the discovery of iPS (induced pluripotent stem) cells by Kyoto University professor and 2012 Nobel Prize laureate Shinya Yamanaka sowed the seeds for the research misconduct.

This ambition apparently led not only to the unusual circumstances in which Obokata was hired, but also to what the panel described as CDB deputy chief Yoshiki Sasai’s excessive obsession with secrecy regarding the research project.

Riken hired Obokata without fully examining her past papers or requiring her to conduct an open seminar in English, as required under normal procedures. Sasai kept information about Obokata’s research from being fully shared among her fellow researchers and also prevented it from being reviewed by others until the papers, which he helped Obokata to write, were published in Britain’s Nature magazine.

The panel’s report understandably called for severe disciplinary measures to be taken against Obokata for what it labeled a lack of sincerity on her part toward research ethics and science. But Riken should not close its eyes to the panel’s recognition that the STAP cells papers were written in haste without sufficient verification of raw data — and that director Masatoshi Takeichi failed to exercise adequate oversight.

The center left the handling and management of the data to Obokata, who kept sloppy research records. The panel was correct to call for severe punishment of both Sasai and Takeichi for their governance failures.

The panel also took a serious view of the fact that despite many questions being raised about Obokata’s STAP cells papers, Riken looked into only six issues concerning just one of the papers and was reluctant to examine suspicions related to the other paper on the grounds that the paper was scheduled to be withdrawn. The panel demanded that Riken closely examine the suspicions concerning the latter paper.

The report blasted Riken for having failed to become aware of its organizational and governance problems, as well as its responsibility for stirring up public suspicions about its attitude. Riken officials should seriously reflect on the fact that the STAP cells scandal has raised doubts about the credibility of scientific research in Japan, not only in this country but also internationally.

At the very least, Riken needs to establish a committee of outside experts to supervise its reform efforts. More importantly, it should reform its organizational structure and strengthen its education and training of young researchers on the assumption that they could engage in research misconduct in the intensely competitive environment. It is indispensable for Riken to consider how to overcome the tendency toward secrecy that can result from fierce competition among researchers to make notable achievements.