National / Science & Health

Riken serves Obokata, others with penalties; charges could follow

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

The government-backed research institution at the center of a scandal over faked work is putting most of the blame on scientist Haruko Obokata and to a lesser extent three of her former colleagues.

Obokata, 31, who has already resigned from Riken, merits disciplinary discharge for fraud, the severest punishment possible for staff researchers, Kiyofumi Tsutsumi, director of the institution’s human resources division, said Tuesday.

Riken is also considering seeking criminal charges against her and compensation for the misuse of research funds, a second official said.

Also named Tuesday was Masatoshi Takeichi, a former director of Riken’s Center for Developmental Biology, who was given a reprimand but is separately returning three months of his salary.

Hitoshi Niwa, a co-author of the contested research papers, was given a written disciplinary warning.

Fellow co-author Teruhiko Wakayama, a researcher who has resigned from Riken, was declared deserving of suspension for up to a year.

Riken also decided on disciplinary action for Yoshiki Sasai, a former deputy director of the center who committed suicide last August, but it won’t announce the measures because he is dead, Tsutsumi said.

Although announcing disciplinary actions against scientists who are no longer with the institute is by many measures a hollow gesture, it decided to do so “to clarify the significance of their responsibility in research dishonesty, as well as in consideration of the social impact of the case,” Tsutsumi said.

Obokata is not off the hook. Satoru Kagaya, director of Riken’s public relations office, said discussion is underway on whether to seek criminal charges against her, although he gave no details.

Obokata resigned in a letter dated Dec. 21, which Riken accepted.

Third-party investigators commissioned to look into the scandal said Dec. 26 that the pluripotent cells Obokata said she had developed were in fact embryonic stem cells mixed in either unintentionally or on purpose. Riken said Tuesday it has no plan to ascertain which scenario is true.

Earlier, the British science journal Nature retracted a paper published in January 2014.

That decision was finalized because Obokata did not appeal it, Riken said last month.

A magazine has quoted former senior Riken researcher Toshihisa Ishikawa as saying he believes Obokata stole samples of embryonic stem cells from another researcher’s lab. This, he said, warrants criminal charges — in part to regain international confidence in Japan’s science establishment.

But Obokata’s lawyer, Hideo Miki, in a statement Jan. 26, said the allegation of theft is “poorly put together” and “significantly contradicts the facts.”