[EDITORIALS]Scandal as stepping-stoneA review panel of Seoul National University has announced the mid-point results of its investigation into the authenticity of Hwang Woo-suk’s stem cell research paper, and its findings are absolutely devastating. His paper published in Science magazine, once hailed as a groundbreaking achievement in international science, contained falsifications. The review board said Dr. Hwang’s team faked data on nine of 11 stem cell lines they claimed to have created.
The university is widening its investigation and said it will look into a paper by Dr. Hwang published in Science last year, as well as the process of creating Snuppy, the world’s first cloned dog claimed by Dr. Hwang’s team in August. Essentially, all of Dr. Hwang’s major research career is open to scrutiny.
Seoul National’s research panel said, “Just by what we have found to be fabrications up to now, Dr. Hwang cannot avoid heavy punishment.” This means that no matter what the school discovers later in its ongoing investigation, the facts currently available are sufficient to levy a severe penalty on the beleaguered scientist.
Following the school’s announcement of its findings, Dr. Hwang said he would resign as professor of the university, but his stepping down would not solve all the problems. He has put a dagger through the heart of Korean citizens who cheered his accomplishment and showed support for his work.
The more serious problem is that, before the university announced its findings, Dr. Hwang refused to admit the falsehood of his paper. We stressed a number of times that after suspicions about his work first surfaced, the truth would be the only solution.
Dr. Hwang had his share of opportunities to come clean since the allegations about the illegal supply of human eggs emerged. On each occasion, however, he lied, changed his story, and passed the buck.
Considering the disappointment among young, aspiring scientists who once dreamed of being like Dr. Hwang, the immorality of hiding the truth is even more serious.
The government is moving toward canceling Dr. Hwang’s designation as the nation’s best scientist and withdrawing its financial support, after it once seemed ready to throw astronomical amounts of research grants his way. It is hard to believe, though, that it invested such a large amount of money and yet was so negligent in validating the results of Dr. Hwang’s research. President and cabinet ministers all basked in the spotlight of Dr. Hwang’s accomplishments, but none paid attention to whether the research was conducted properly.
National academics are in shock, but there is also talk that they should have begun a validation process earlier. It is a blessing in disguise that our own young scientists, not foreign counterparts, uncovered the truth about Dr. Hwang falsifying his research paper. Proving the ability of our scientists to objectively critique one of their own at least saved Korean science from completely collapsing.
Korean science should look at this incident as a stepping-stone to a better future. The university’s review panel must leave no stone unturned in the rest of its investigation. Also, the prosecutors must conduct a separate investigation on whether there has been any misappropriation of funds on Dr. Hwang’s part, and hold him accountable for fabricating his paper. This is the only way to help Korean science recover.