Editorials

End of the STAP dream

The STAP cell fiasco, which apparently came to a conclusion last week, has put into relief serious problems that the state-backed Riken research institute is beset with. The education ministry is not free of responsibility either, for it helped to create the research environment that contributed to spawning the scandal, which has damaged the reputation of Japan’s scientific research community.

At the very least, the people concerned, including Riken chief Ryoji Noyori and other institute officials, should determine what went wrong with STAP cell research and come up with concrete rectification measures.

Developments following the alleged discovery of STAP cells show that not only the researchers involved but also Riken and the education ministry got the basics wrong.

Two papers lead-authored by Haruko Obokata, which appeared in the British science journal Nature, claimed to have discovered a new and simple way to produce pluripotent cells that can develop into any type of tissue. The authors called the method — which involved exposing cells to mildly acidic liquid — stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency.

Although the papers were touted as trailblazing, allegations of data falsification and fabrication followed. On April 1, an investigation committee announced that Obokata committed two counts of research misconduct, leading to the retraction of the papers in July.

Last week, Riken announced that Obokata, in her efforts to replicate her research, failed to produce STAP cells. The institute also concluded later that the cells her papers said were derived from STAP cells were found to have been derived from embryonic stem (ES) cells. It also detected two more counts of research misconduct by Obokata.

One big question is why Obokata, apparently an immature scientist, was appointed leader of the research team in the first place. Circumstances show that officials at Riken Center for Developmental Biology jumped at her idea and hired her by lowering their employment standards.

In addition, Riken carried out highly visible public relations activities after her papers were published. After suspicions were raised about the papers, Riken’s poor handling of the matter led to the suicide in August of Yoshiki Sasai, the CDB deputy director. He had served as an adviser to Obokata and as co-author of the papers.

While Obokata’s responsibility cannot be dismissed, most of the responsibility — including the failure to make sure that her research would be carried out without blemish — rests with Riken. It has not even ruled out the possibility that somebody else mixed ES cells with the cells handled by Obokata, suggesting a fatal flaw in Riken’s research setup.

The most frustrating and incomprehensible point is that nobody has stepped forward to take final responsibility. Riken and education ministry officials should seriously consider this issue and take concrete action.

Clearly behind the STAP cell scandal is the policy of the education ministry. While reducing government funding for basic research, the ministry is seeking quick and usable results from research. This has led to fierce competition among researchers, universities and research institutes to obtain research funds and get ahead.

Ambition is driving researchers and organizations. Young researchers especially are put under pressure to produce quicker results — a factor contributing to research irregularities. Even reputed top-grade organizations like Riken and the University of Tokyo are not free of rampant irregularities. Researchers, universities and research institutes need to deeply think about what they have to do to overcome this crisis.

Although basic research rarely can be said to produce practical results, it is diligent, steady basic research that paves the way for discoveries that can be put to wider use. Education ministry officials should realize this.

Riken and ministry officials also should be ashamed of their crude and disrespectful treatment of Obokata. She was required to replicate her research in a 25-square-meter room with a surveillance camera operating 24 hours a day and under the watch of a third-party observer.

People like Noyori, a 2001 Nobel laureate in chemistry, should take a stand to push for drastic change in the research environment at Riken and elsewhere in Japan, which suffers from structural problems.

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