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Human embryo cloning, stem cell research--and journalism--in Korea

An entirely appropriate stew of scientific vexation and mortification has accompanied revelations that the incredible Korean achievements in human embryonic cloning and stem cell research are exactly that: incredible. But midst the hand-wringing over failures of peer review--and justified alarm over the future of human embryo clones and stem cell research--an intriguing fact has been obscured. Woo Suk Hwang would still be a rock-star equivalent, and frustrated researchers would still be trying

By | January 5, 2006

An entirely appropriate stew of scientific vexation and mortification has accompanied revelations that the incredible Korean achievements in human embryonic cloning and stem cell research are exactly that: incredible. But midst the hand-wringing over failures of peer review--and justified alarm over the future of human embryo clones and stem cell research--an intriguing fact has been obscured. Woo Suk Hwang would still be a rock-star equivalent, and frustrated researchers would still be trying to replicate his reported lab successes, if he hadn't been outed by journalists--and television journalists at that. Yes, this monumental scientific fraud was not initially disclosed by the journals that published Hwang's cloning and stem cell papers, or the reviewers, or regulators, or ethics committees--all those scientific institutions that should be bulwarks against fraud of this magnitude. Disclosure happened because reporters for the South Korean TV network MBC got a tip and pursued it vigorously. (Too vigorously, it appears. Some interviewees have charged that they were threatened and lied to to get their cooperation. MBC has apologized, so the charges are probably true.) Journalism's role may be only a footnote to the Korean stem cell mess. But it's a bit of a pleasure and relief, for a journalist like me, to point it out to an audience of scientists. For many reasons that I won't detail here, a number of them self-inflicted, it's hard times for journalism at the moment. So any good journalism deed is a cause for glee. Does that mean science can count on journalism to help it clean out the stables? Hardly. For one thing, engaging in bullying, deception, and fraud to unmask bullying, deception, and fraud presents, uh, ethical problems, even for cynical journalists. In addition, the Korean tale of cloning a human embryo was journalism red meat--the opportunity to expose a huge fraud and in so doing bring down a huge celebrity. Would the MBC reporters--or any reporters--be interested in disclosing common-or-garden scientific fraud like data-tweaking by a John Doe at the University of Obscurity? Not for a moment. A side note: One deeply perplexing question about the Korean stem cell story is why Hwang did it, and how he thought he could get away with it. Of course, he did get away with it--for a while, anyway. So I draw your attention to an intriguing explanation offered by bioethicist Arthur Caplan. (Full disclosure: He is an old friend and sometime source.) Caplan suggests that Hwang might have been counting on some other researcher to succeed where he had failed--at which point his lab could adopt those successful techniques and begin actually doing the work it claimed to be doing.
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Mettler Toledo
BD Biosciences
BD Biosciences