Laboratory Ethics: What Makes Some Scientists Cheat? ; Questionable Stem-Cell Research in a South Korea Case May Be the Latest in a Series of Ethical Lapses in 2005
Peter N. Spotts writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
Is it a matter of shoddy work in the lab? A problem of excessive deference by junior researchers to senior scientists? Or does the case of the suspect stem-cell experiments in South Korea - an episode that is shaking the biomedical field worldwide - point to a severe lapse of research ethics?
With a probe at Seoul National University just beginning, it is likely to be some time before investigators can explain what led to apparent flaws in research - once celebrated as groundbreaking - by scientist Hwang Woo-Suk. His work involved cloning human embryos to garner highly prized stem cells specific to individual patients - an ability seen as an advantage in any future stem-cell therapies.
In the meantime, the case is prompting a closer look at how scientific journals screen research reports before publication, as well as forcing a deeper recognition of the intense pressures scientists can experience while working on cutting-edge, high- stakes research.
"Scientists are not a special breed of human being," says Thomas Murray, president of the Hastings Center, a bioethics institute in Garrison, N.Y. "But they function in a special environment.... They are bright people working in a community where the best ideas rise to the top. If you're not in first place, you're no place."
South Korea's probe at the dawn of what some dub "the biotech century" caps a year of research-ethics challenges.
* Late last month, a US district court judge in Albany, N.Y., sentenced a former Veterans Administration cancer researcher to 71 months in jail for criminally negligent homicide. Paul Kornak admitted that he had forged medical records, opening the way for people to take part in drug trials who should have been excluded because of existing medical conditions. One participant whose records were altered died during the experiment.
* In October, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology fired a young biologist and promising immunology researcher. MIT officials say Luk Van Parijs was dismissed after he admitted to school investigators that he fabricated and altered evidence in research papers to support grant applications.
* In March, a University of Vermont obesity scientist admitted faking data in order to buttress grant applications. (He netted $3 million in government grants.) Under a deal with US prosecutors, Eric Poehlman agreed to plead guilty to criminal fraud and to retract or correct several research papers.
Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health has tightened its rules for NIH researchers who also serve as consultants to drug companies. The NIH is trying to walk a tightrope between avoiding conflicts of interest and ensuring that scientists can engage in the open give and take today's complex research efforts require. In a survey of NIH-funded scientists, released in June, only 1. …