[VIEWPOINT]Hwang debacle teaches painful lessons

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[VIEWPOINT]Hwang debacle teaches painful lessons

The prosecution has announced the final results of its investigation into allegations of fraud and fabrication involving Dr. Hwang Woo-suk.
As I watched prosecutors label research and work that recently had fired up the nation as a fraud or fabrication, I started to think it is time to end the controversy over Dr. Hwang’s activities.
Like the collapse of the Seongsu Bridge, Dr. Hwang’s fraud has been met with widespread disbelief. This demonstrate just how big people’s expectations had been, as well as the size of their disappointment about what happened to Dr. Hwang’s research.
For Korea, which, unlike Western Europe or Japan, has a relatively short history of modern science, the shock must have been bigger. It is because Korean people do not understand fully that numerous works of research cumulatively contribute toward making small progress, and with such incremental progress, big strides are made.
Come to think of it, Koreans may not have shouted for joy over the results of the research, or gotten embarrassed at its failure, if they knew that each scientific paper quotes an average of 50 to 60 sources in literature about the subject and the content of every page in a medical textbook is the result of a lifetime of work for hundreds of scientists.
If people knew the world of science is based on unquestioned international credibility, they might not have clung to the work of a scientist who has lost all credibility and has no standing left.
Fabrication of research data and swindling of research funds also take place in advanced countries.
However, in these countries, there is a social consensus that wrongdoing should be thoroughly investigated and rooted out. Therefore, the science community in those countries continues to enjoy the confidence of the people.
Fortunately, through our young scientists’ ability for self-examination and the prosecution’s thorough investigation, we can show the world that Korea is also a country that cherishes scientific ethics and the truth.
Through a painstaking investigation that lasted five months, the prosecution has helped the people who were afflicted with Hwang Woo-suk fever to rise up from their sickbed.
Meanwhile, elsewhere, stem-cell research has rapidly moved forward.
The State of California has issued a state bond worth $3.2 billion (3 trillion won) for research on nerve regeneration at the University of California-San Francisco Medical Center. Britain has also started to move fast with its own strategy for stem-cell research.
Stem-cell research has become a new variable that will decisively shape the future of medical science.
Compared to past experiences in which mammoth pharmaceutical companies invest massive resources and reel under a heavy blow when a new drug fails in testing with patients, stem-cell research is a field in which we have no choice but to proceed ― even with the prospect of only partial success.
After all, the question is how we pursue stem cell research ― not whether we promote it or not.
In the meantime, we have learned many things.
First of all, we learned that we shouldn’t make a sport of science.
Science is the product of enduring efforts accumulated over long periods of time.
We also found that ethics are compulsory. There is a saying, “Science has no borders, but there are boundaries for scientists.”
We realized that our science cannot grow if limited within borders, and that it can join in the global village only when it meets international standards of transparency and ethical guidelines.
One more thing we have learned is that Korea’s practice and system of sponsorship should be changed so that a scientist’s self-restraint will not be tested.
We have come to understand the reason why national or public foundations accept contributions for research work in advanced countries and they then decide which institute should receive support.
We in Korea paid very dearly to learn these lessons from the incidents surrounding Dr. Hwang and his research team.
It was a fateful stage that Korean science had to go through once in order to grow.
Clinging to something that we lost, or being discouraged by the loss, does not help us.
The funeral is for the deceased, we should move on.
That is the way we can help patients who are suffering from incurable diseases and wait without losing hope, even at this moment.

* The writer is a professor at the College of Medicine, the Catholic University of Korea.

by Oh Il-hoan

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