Ethics in Research Debated

Stem cell researcher Hwang Woo Suk, talking to reporters in May, resigned Friday from Seoul National University.
Stem cell researcher Hwang Woo Suk, talking to reporters in May, resigned Friday from Seoul National University. (By Lee Jae-won -- Reuters)
By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 25, 2005

The stunning revelation that a South Korean researcher faked landmark stem cell experiments has sparked an intense new debate about the safeguards designed to prevent and catch scientific fraud.

While it remains unclear what motivated Hwang Woo Suk, the case has highlighted how the increasingly rapid pace of science, and rising international competition, may be intensifying the temptation to fake results, experts said.

"There is tremendous pressure today to be first. If you do something first, all the money and fame will come to you," said Adil E. Shamoo, a biomedical ethicist at the University of Maryland. "All that is an obvious seduction for doing something like this."

Such pressures may be exposing weakness in existing protections, allowing fraudulent conduct to go undetected and undermining public trust in science, others said.

"The system broke down," said Laurie Zoloth, director of the Center for Bioethics, Science and Society at Northwestern University. "We have to ask hard questions."

The stem cell fraud case joins a rogues' gallery of hoaxes that have shaken the scientific world periodically. From the 1912 Piltdown man claim by British researchers that they had discovered the "missing link" to a recent claim by U.S. researchers that they had discovered new basic elements, history is pockmarked with infamous cases of scientific fraud.

"The notion of a scientist faking data has, unfortunately, probably been around as long as there has been science," said Marcel C. LaFollette, a historian who studies and writes about scientific integrity.

The stem cell case has parallels with some earlier hoaxes, according to Alex Boese, who studies and writes about such cases. In the Piltdown man claim, for example, the British researchers may have been motivated in part by national pride.

"At the time, it was assumed that whatever country discovered the missing link would be the root of mankind," Boese said. "Maybe in this case South Koreans wanted to prove their scientific credentials."

With each new revelation comes a new round of questions about how well science polices itself and whether the system needs to be changed.

Currently, research is largely self-monitored through a patchwork of safeguards designed to make sure studies are ethical and conducted well. Universities, hospitals and other research centers have internal review boards that approve studies before they are begun to make sure they are ethical and well designed, then monitor their conduct. Scientists submit their findings to journals, which ask experts in the field to review them.

Some experts said that the system of checks and balances may not be as stringent in countries such as South Korea.

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