It came as a shock last year when former Seoul National University professor Hwang Woo Suk’s claims that he had created stem cells by cloning human embryos turned out to be fraudulent. A recent case at Waseda University in Tokyo is no less surprising, although it mainly concerns the irregular use of research funds.

At the center of the scandal is professor Kazuko Matsumoto, 56, a member of the department of chemistry at the university’s School of Science and Engineering. The irregularities are related to research funds totaling 360 million yen that the government gave her over a five-year period through fiscal 2003 for gene analysis and other projects.

Waseda’s investigation committee has found that Ms. Matsumoto had the university transfer more than 30 million yen to the bank accounts of students who she said worked part-time on her projects. She then had the students transfer 14.72 million yen of this money to her bank account. Next she placed 9 million yen of this money in an investment trust. No records exist showing that the students had actually been employed by her.

Professor Matsumoto’s research group also paid 23 million yen to a company — on whose board she serves part-time — as a payment for chemicals. But the company made no deliveries to her research group.

It remains unclear why Ms. Matsumoto took these dubious actions. One possibility is that she may have wanted to stockpile research funds in a readily accessible manner because the Finance Ministry used to prohibit the practice of carrying over research funds to the following year. In fact, professor Matsumoto claims that some of the money in question was used to buy research materials. But given her position as a leader in Japan’s scientific world, her actions cannot be justified.

Professor Matsumoto received her Ph.D in 1977 from the University of Tokyo. She was hired by Waseda University as an associate professor in 1984, and was made a full professor in 1989. Her research involves synthesizing new functional metal complexes in the field of bioanalytical chemistry.

On Jan. 1, she became vice president of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, an international federation of various countries’ chemistry societies. This organization sets standards for naming elements and compounds. She was scheduled to become IUPAC’s first female president in 2008, but she has now indicated that she will not accept the position.

It is ironic that the scandal surfaced just after the nation’s five-year science and technology development plan came into force in April 2006. Professor Matsumoto was deeply involved in the plan. For four years through the beginning of 2006 she served as a member of the 15-member Council for Science and Technology Policy, which wrote the “third science and technology basic plan,” on which the five-year plan is based. The council, headed by the prime minister, sets down the nation’s comprehensive and basic policy related to science and technology.

Established in 2001, the council consists of the prime minister, six Cabinet members and eight academicians and private-sector leaders. The third plan calls for, among other things, accumulating and creating diverse areas of knowledge and expertise capable of opening up new frontiers. The target amount of investment is set at 25 trillion yen for fiscal 2006-2010.

As a separate issue to the irregularities in the handling of the research funds, an investigation is continuing concerning research data cited in an article written by professor Matsumoto and a Chinese researcher that was published in a U.S. chemistry journal in 2001.

Whistle-blowing in April triggered Waseda University’s investigation into the research fund scandal; however, the university had carried out a similar investigation of professor Matsumoto two years ago. At that time, the university made no reports to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, and it is unknown what the investigation unearthed. Had that investigation been more thorough the present scandal might have been avoided.

Professor Matsumoto has tendered her resignation and the president of Waseda University faces a salary cut. But the scandal has wider repercussions. The provision of fiscal 2006 research funds by the government to researchers at other universities may be delayed. The Council for Science and Technology Policy has ordered the education ministry and other government ministries concerned to work out measures to prevent further similar scandals.

Under the government’s policy of building a “nation strong in science and technology,” some researchers may receive large amounts of funding. There is a need to radically change the way research funds are distributed and to check how they are used.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.