Editorial: Setback to science

Published in The Hindu on November 9, 2009


The career of the disgraced South Korean stem cell researcher, Hwang Woo Suk, came to an intriguing end when a court handed down a two-year sentence (suspended for three years) for embezzling government money ($700,000) and buying human eggs for research in violation of bioethics law but cleared him of the fraud charges. In South Korea, science fraud becomes illegal only if the fraudulent data are used to gain funds. Dr. Hwang admitted fraud in January 2006 and his government promptly withdrew his licence to conduct stem cell research. This was for conducting fraudulent research and also for bioethical transgressions — paying women to donate eggs and using eggs donated by two junior scientists working in his laboratory. It became clear by the end of 2005 that the two ‘landmark’ papers published in Science that catapulted Dr. Hwang to fame contained nothing but fabricated data and manipulated images. The ‘breakthrough’ paper, published in March 2004, reported the first stem cell line produced from a cloned human embryo. It was followed by a ‘seminal’ paper in May 2005 where the researcher reported the creation of 11 stem cell lines that genetically matched nine patients with spinal cord injury, diabetes, and an immune system disorder. The journal retracted both papers in January 2006.

An unintended but positive consequence of Dr. Hwang’s notoriety has been a tightening of the rules and closer scrutiny of images submitted by researchers for publication. The committee that examined the two papers at the behest of Science suggested that it would no longer do to work on the assumption that there would be no misrepresentation by the authors, and proposed some changes in the verification process. There is also a greater understanding among young researchers of what constitutes misconduct in science and its costs. Seoul National University, where Dr. Hwang worked until he was dismissed, even started an undergraduate course on misconduct. But science fraud and misconduct are likely to occur as long as the following conditions persist — a pressure cooker situation of having to publish in high-impact journals, ready access to simple tools to falsify data, and the race by science journals to publish path-breaking results, at times in fast-track mode.