[GLOBAL EYE]Wake up from the fantasyDr. Hwang Woo-suk’s fabrication of his papers on stem cell research has brought triple disgrace to the Republic of Korea. First of all, the fabrication was so shocking that Dr. Hwang’s reputation changed overnight from that of an internationally renowned scholar into a liar to be recorded in the history of science. When Dr. Hwang’s controversial 2005 paper was published, it was so epoch-making that the western media used the expression, “too good to be true.”
The dishonest acts of fabricating experimental data and faking a research paper are no rare incidents in the world of science. Without exception, such incidents have concluded with the scientist’s personal disgrace and forced withdrawal from the research world. However, it is hard to find a precedent where a scientist’s paper fabrication shook an entire country and resulted in the division of the public that Dr. Hwang’s has.
Including the president, politicians, the government, academia, media and citizens, the entire nation was deceived by the falsified paper. The government also led the project of making Dr. Hwang a hero by granting tens of billions of won from the national treasury to his research and attempting to lobby for him as a Nobel Prize candidate. Along with Dr. Hwang, the national verification system of Korea and the management capability of the government have become international laughing- stocks.
Once a scientific verification process proves that a paper has been faked and the researchers involved in the project acknowledge that fabrication, it means the end of their careers as researchers. Nevertheless, it is also laughable that many of Dr. Hwang’s supporters and the public insist on Dr. Hwang’s reinstatement, talking about “Korea’s original technology.”
It is utter nonsense that scientific truth should be decided by public opinion. Nevertheless, many people still insist that they trust Dr. Hwang’s explanation more than the resuts of Seoul National University’s investigation. It is a sort of nationalism ignited by stem cell research that goes beyond just sympathy and attachment for Dr. Hwang.
With the retraction of his papers, the “Hwang Woo-suk legend” has collapsed. However, the social factors that gave birth to his legend are still intact around us. It can be generally described as “Hwang Woo-suk patriotism.”
Stem cell research is a grand step in human history that goes beyond the level of a national industry. Even if the research on stem cells had succeeded, we still had a long way to go in terms of clinical testing and specialization, and the research had to be bolstered by cutting-edge medical and scientific infrastructures.
The research, therefore, had to transcend the boundaries of Korea, and we would have needed proven transparency of the research process, verification of the results and the trust of the international science society to gain its cooperation. For the true national interest, the scientist concerned had to be not just a Korean hero but also a global hero.
The art of medicine is not merely technical but requires the spirit of valuing the human body and mankind. It is an iron law in biomedical science that humanity is the highest value. A medical researcher is not a popular star and should not give rash expectations and fantasies to the public. When Joseon Dynasty scholar Jeong Yak-yong wrote a book on medicine, he gave it the title, “Chonbyeonghokchi,” meaning “a book that might treat the illnesses of the peasant.” Medicine demands modesty more than the arrogance of the self-claimed best doctor in the world or the oratory of a prophet.
Moreover, transplantation of animal organs to a human body is still a territory of the imagination, into which we need to be extremely prudent of entering. There has been a chilling admonition that breaking the biological barrier between man and other species might have caused the prevalence of new diseases such as AIDS and avian influenza.
The idea of promoting stem cell research as a strategic industry of the country, as if it were some kind of manufactured product, is reckless. Despite the noble cause answered by egg donors, the popularity of egg donation has made Korea look very bizarre. Will a stem cell hub, which would provide eggs to researchers around the world, contribute to the national interest of Korea?
If we wake up from the magic of being “the Republic of Korea” and “the first in the world” and display a self-regulating ability through thorough social verification of factors hindering the scientific verification process, Korea’s future in stem cell research will once again be promising.
* The writer is a senior columnist of the Joongang Ilbo.
by Byun Sang-keun