The STAP Scandal Ends With the Resignation of Lead Scientist
Back in January of 2014, Nature published a pair of reports about Stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP for short.) STAP was an alleged method of generating pluripotent stem cells by subjecting ordinary cells to certain types of stress, such as the application of a bacterial toxin, submersion in a weak acid, or physical squeezing. STAP research was conducted by the RIKEN institution of Japan. RIKEN has a 100 year history and 3000 current scientists working on seven campuses across Japan, so they are considered a significant scientific institute, albeit an imperfect organization (they are somewhat controversial, as they are accused of being “unprofessional” and utilizing “inadequate scientific rigor and consistency”.)
Stem cell biologist Haruko Obokata was the scientist whose research was published. Within a few weeks of the publications, critics on the PubPeer website and other blogs pointed out problems with some of the images in the papers, including some that were very similar to those in earlier papers by Obokata. This prompted RIKEN to launch an internal investigation into the matter. They eventually deemed her guilty of scientific misconduct. To compound the issue, scientists around the world have tried to replicate the technique, but to date, none have succeeded.
Obokata eventually agreed to retract the papers. Yet in the wake of this controversy, Obokata’s mentor co-author, Yoshiki Sasai, committed suicide, which shocked the scientific community back in August.
Now the final chapter has likely been written on the short and infamous history of STAP. Obokata resigned from RIKEN just the other day, on the heels of the announcement from RIKEN that their latest efforts to reproduce the results have failed again, and they are no longer going to be attempting any more replications. Obokata’s final comments on the entire matter:
“I worked hard for three months to show significant results, but I’m so exhausted now and extremely puzzled … I am keenly aware of my responsibility for troubling a number of people because of my inexperience. I even can’t find the words for an apology.”
Outcomes such as this could shake a person’s confidence in the integrity of science. In actuality, it should strengthen people’s confidence in the process. The nature of science is such that errors, both unintentional and intentional, get weeded out in the process of confirmation and replication. Sometimes the weeding can take a very long time (years or, in some cases, decades.) We are all fortunate to live in a time where technology has a great impact on the scientific process. Near-instantaneous feedback, courtesy of social media and other modern outlets, helped push the process of vetting STAP along at a faster pace. For as awful as the details have been about the STAP case, we can take pride in the facts that the scientific method, and it’s self-correcting nature, continues to work better than any system of knowledge known to humans AND that modern technology (social media) combined with an engaged and passionate population of scientists and science enthusiasts is helping speed up the process faster than ever before.