[VIEWPOINT]Don’t toss the good with the badThe huge controversy over the authenticity of Hwang Woo-suk’s research thesis on stem cell cloning, that went out of control, has been almost rounded up with the conclusion that it contained intentional falsifications. Although there remains the question of whether or not patient-specific embryonic stem cells actually exist, the people who viewed the announcement of the Seoul National University review panel have already been shocked and utterly discouraged. We cannot help but be surprised to find that things could get to this state without us even being aware of the situation. It may seem a little late, but we need to have the wisdom to learn from this incident and change it from a negative experience to a basis for future-oriented development.
Nobody can deny that, in the controversy over Hwang Woo-suk’s research thesis, it is the researcher himself who is responsible, first of all, for the unethical actions he took and that he deserves punishment. There is also a need, however, for in-depth analysis of the series of social phenomena that took place surrounding the research team. The press and political community, which played a part in over-inflating the project and glorifying it as if it was sacred, even before it had a chance to be verified by the science world; the civilians, central and local government authorities that rushed into investing in the project without asking any questions; the protective candlelight protests of various civic groups; and the university authorities and colleagues in the science and technology world that should have verified any errors and put a stop to the research all degraded themselves to mere spectators and thus cooperated in the fabrication. We all need to deeply self-reflect on this point.
Dr. Hwang and his team pursued a cutting edge 21st century research goal, but we can see that the research management, promotion and support systems they used were pre-modern. Basic management mechanisms, such as analyzing the research results of all the teams involved in the project and sharing the results of each team with all, and sharing information among all researchers in the project, were not in place. How can the members of the same research team exchange offensive and defensive volleys over the authenticity of their own research? How can the possibility of changing research results without the knowledge of the researcher in charge be raised? Perhaps, such a backward management system in the laboratories might have contributed to bringing this enormous disaster to our academic world.
The larger the size of investment in research becomes, the more there is a need to minimize risk factors, and an optimum research administration system is necessary in order to do this. Recently, highly advanced countries have even started to adopt a so-called fourth generation research administration method, or even a fifth-generation one. All jobs, not only research planning, the research promotion process and support for researchers, but also analysis of research results, storing and sharing information and so forth, are managed in transparent and rational processes and methods. There is no room to permit something scandalous like the intentional falsification of research.
The same goes for the “laboratory culture of Korean universities” that was reported in the press. How can a professor order a student or researcher working under him to carry out intentional falsifications, and how can a researcher follow that order knowing that it is immoral? A system that can prevent such scandalous actions from happening has to be introduced as soon as possible. We need to take note that highly advanced countries like the United States have departments like an ORI (Office of Research Integrity) in universities, and these countries guide and supervise researchers so that appropriate research administration can take place.
The last thing I want to point out concerns the future course of young researchers who were involved in the stem cell research. Bio-engineering is a developing business that is new to the 21st century, and the field of stem cell research in particular is one of a few niche fields that we are competitive in. We are a leader in the category of creating patient-specific cloned embryonic stem cells. There is still a debate over whether the patient-specific embryonic stem cell lines exist but, even after getting rid of the lies, there remains a technology in which we have comparative superiority. We need to improve these technologies and protect and develop them.
Thus, the government needs to call together and support the young researchers that have such technological expertise, before they get dispersed, and provide a stepping-stone for their comeback.
* The writer is the president of the Korean Federation of Science and Technology Societies. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Chae Yung-bog