Suspected research fraud
Only quick, thorough probe can minimize ripple effect
No sooner had the nation’s stem cell research community begun to get over the 2005 ``Hwang Woo-suk trauma” than suspicions of a similar nature emerged at the same institution this week.
Professor Kang Soo-kyung of Seoul National University (SNU) is suspected of fabricating 14 studies submitted to international scientific journals by using falsified data that was either exaggerated or down played. Kang has retracted two of his theses and made partial revisions for others.
This latest scientific scandal could not have come at a worse time, as stem cell research here was beginning to overcome damage incurred so shockingly to its international reputation seven years ago when former SNU professor Hwang fell from grace after he fabricated papers. Korea was reemerging as a global leader in the field of stem cell research boasting the fourth largest number of related patents.
Kang has admitted using inaccurate information in his studies, so the point is whether these errors are minor or serious, mistaken or intentional.
It may be too hasty of course to conclude that Kang, one of Korea’s most promising talents in this field as Hwang once was, is a wrongdoer, before the industry verifies allegations made by an unidentified whistleblower. And this is why SNU’s in-house investigation team should conduct a swift but thorough job before unfounded and unnecessary suspicions spread further.
At stake is Korea’s status in the global stem cell industry, a future growth area with an estimated market value of $40 billion. Competition is heating up worldwide, as President Barack Obama lifted a U.S. research ban in 2009 on stem cells and gave a $200-million subsidy to it, followed by similar financial commitments in the European Union, Japan and China. So President Lee Myung-bak was right to increase the government’s funding to 100 billion won last year. He needs to increase it even further.
Yet the latest academic controversy points to some problems the domestic industry must overcome before it can make any more leaps forward. Above all, most of the government’s subsidies go only to projects that produce short-term, tangible results even in this vital scientific area, preventing anxious researchers from engaging in longer and more fundamental studies. This also explains why the nation’s industry-academy complex focuses mainly on applied technologies instead of original ones, paying hefty royalties to foreign patent holders.
The latest incident reveals another weakness common to many other sectors in this country: There is too much importance and emphasis given to outcomes and too little to processes, resulting in rampant foul play and irregularities gripping the whole society.
No less serious is the problem with the reporting system within the scientific community. Had the nation set up a reporting center that could guarantee the safety of those who expose shady corners of the academic world, the whistleblower in question wouldn’t have needed to take the case directly to international journals. The time has long past for leaders in the science and research sector to come up with a fair third-party institute to receive and handle such reports.
Korea can ill afford to see more tragic ends to talented researchers’ careers. The best way to prevent it is an overhaul of related systems. A complete investigation into Kang’s case should be the first step.