[OUTLOOK]Whistling while stem cells burn

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[OUTLOOK]Whistling while stem cells burn

Korea has attracted the attention of the international media three times in history. The foreign media focused on the country when the Korean War broke out, and then when the inter-Korean summit was held in Pyongyang. Most recently, the controversy surrounding Dr. Hwang Woo-suk’s research has become a hot subject. The world is paying far more attention to the scandal than it had to the previous two events. Today, Korea is facing a serious crisis. It is no exaggeration to say that the handling of the case will determine the future of the nation. However, President Roh Moo-hyun is being too lax about the scandal.
While Dr. Hwang’s rise to fame began eight years ago, during the Kim Dae-jung administration, he rose to international stardom when his research paper was published in the journal Science in February, 2004. At the time, the Korean Bioethics Association formed a special committee on human embryonic cloning research for medical treatment, to review the ethical aspect of the study. A year later, Dr. Hwang acknowledged problems during a lecture at Seoul National University and a debate held at the Kwanhun Club of journalists, but refused to openly discuss the matter. Most media companies barely reported the mention of the problems, which turned out to be very significant, and the government completely ignored it. The initial indifference of the media and the government only aggravated the scandal.
After the show “PD Notebook” raised questions about the research on television, Dr. Hwang confessed that there had been a critical error in the course of obtaining the eggs. All the ethical suspicions regarding his paper turned out to be true. Such a scientist cannot survive in the international community. Dr. Hwang’s career should have ended there. Whether the research was fabricated is a completely different matter. The initial response of the government was that there was no problem, and it took no immediate action. It missed a good opportunity to get the situation under control. The settlement of the controversy should not have taken two months and continued into the new year.
It was in June, 2005 that an informant came to the Korean Bioethics Association and tipped it off that Dr. Hwang’s paper was forged. The association secretly conducted an investigation and discovered contentious points, but couldn’t make progress. The result of the tenacious investigation by MBC and the verification by young scientists was shocking. There certainly have been a number of fraudulent researchers in the history of science, but Dr. Hwang’s scandal is making ripples like no other. The world is stunned by the fact that this shocking fraud was done under the protection of the government. Nevertheless, our government remains stubborn and insists on waiting and observing the situation.
Everyone knows that the Blue House was the standard-bearer in the hero-making of Dr. Hwang. Park Ki-young, a presidential advisor for science and technology and one of the co-authors of the controversial paper, took the initiative in backing Dr. Hwang. Instead of keeping a low profile, she keeps on making public appearances. The Ministry of Science and Technology, which had promoted Dr. Hwang as a star scientist, and the Ministry of Health and Welfare, which should have overseen the biomedical engineering research, display little repentance. Oh Myung, outgoing deputy prime minister and minister of science and technology, had encouraged Dr. Hwang’s research and even paid a visit to him in the hospital after his faults were revealed. Uri Party lawmaker Rhyu Si-min, a well-known supporter of Dr. Hwang, has been named the new health minister. And that’s not the end of the controversy. None of the Korean Bioethics Committee members is a properly-educated ethics expert, and its chairman, who had been on the defense counsel team for President Roh during the impeachment case, stepped down after it was revealed that he had helped Dr. Hwang. The National Intelligence Service is also rumored to be related to the scandal.
The president, who stands above all those responsible, seems to be too relaxed. I felt a sense of crisis as I listened to the leisurely speech he gave at a meeting of scientists at the beginning of the year. The president completely stunned the scientists when he said, “It is the politicians’ duty to make sure that the ethics controversy does not hinder scientific research” at the opening ceremony of the World Stem Cell Hub last October. This time, he did not mention ethics at all. While he said he would hold responsible those who were responsible, he praised the outgoing science minister for voluntarily resigning from his post. I don’t know who should take responsibility.
If the president thinks that he can cover up the scandal so easily, he does not understand the seriousness of the case. The president has been too attached to clarifying the concealed truths in history, and he would be contradicting himself if he wants to cover up a scandal that happened not so long ago.
International bioethics scholars are observing Dr. Hwang’s scandal. International conferences to be held in the near future are likely to discuss the issue. The verification efforts of young scientists and prompt investigation by Seoul National University have somewhat mitigated the damage to Korea’s reputation.
If Mr. Roh makes a sincere apology and strictly reprimands those responsible, and an overall reconsideration of the bioengineering development policy follows, we can turn the scandal into an opportunity. Biomedical engineering backed by ethics will surely garner the support of the world.

*The writer is the president of the Asian Bioethics Association and the vice chairman of the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Song Sang-yong
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