Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Fall of a Super Scientist

It is fair to speculate that Hwang Woo Suk won’t be getting the Nobel Prize for Medicine anytime soon. The 53-year-old ex-professor at Seoul National University – it is hard now to dignify him with the word “scientist” – admitted that he had fabricated much of the research behind his purported ground-breaking discoveries in cloning.

I haven’t commented on this story before. When the first doubts about Hwang’s research and ethics began to emerge a few months ago, I didn’t feel I knew enough about the science of cloning or bioethics. It’s not clear to me whether using eggs purchased from his female lab assistants is a serious breach of bioethics or not.

Still, it is not hard to wrap one’s mind around the concept of fraud. And it now appears that the entire edifice that Hwang had conjured up to support his sweeping conclusions was fabricated. Hwang claimed he had invented the technology needed to clone human embryos and produce stem cells that genetically match patients.

No other scientist has been able to replicate Hwang’s feat, and it now appears that he concocted lab data and DNA fingerprinting to make it look like had had produced 11 lines of genetically matched patients. The university now says these were not mistakes but intentional fabrications.

Hwang resigned his post at the university and has apologized for “creating unspeakable shock and disappointment.” That was an understatement. The South Korean people had taken their “supreme scientist” to heart. When the first stories that he had breached ethics appeared, the public rallied to his side. The investigative reporters for the journals that first exposed Hwang were vilified.

The stem cell research had become almost a “people’s project” said South Korea’s leading newspaper the Chosun Ilbo. “Scientists kept mum because they saw hope in one of their own becoming a national hero, and the government was happy to bask in the reflected glory without asking too many questions.”

In centuries past, Asia, China specifically, was the world’s leader in technological innovations. One thinks back, of course, to China’s invention of paper, gunpowder, printing, and so on. The ships that Admiral He built to explore half of the world far surpassed anything in Europe at the time.

In modern times Asian nations have emerged from colonialism and gone on to many successes. But the one area where Asians have lagged has been in science, or perhaps in the larger world of innovation and creativity. The number of Asians who have won the Nobel Prize for any of the sciences is minuscule.

In some ways it is a bad rap. Modern Asians have shown they can be innovative and creative in many fields, ranging from Japanese anime and just-in-time production management techniques to politics – China’s fusion of communism and capitalism into a (so far) coherent system of governance, for example.

There are of course, a number of reasons, or excuses, for this lack of innovation in science. They range from Confucianism, to a lack of a tradition for “pure” research as opposed to applied sciences to the fact that, until recently, most Asian countries were too poor to afford the extensive and lavishly funded research laboratories of the West.

So when it was revealed that a South Korean scientist had scored what appeared to be a major scientific breakthrough in a cutting edge technology it seemed to most South Koreans, and perhaps to Asians in general, that they had finally made it. Hwang became almost a rock star among Koreans.

The South Korean government, which had plowed millions into Hwang’s research to help push the country into the forefront of biotechnology, admitted to being crushingly disappointed by the news. But it pledged to support other stem cell scientists “so not to frustrate the people’s hopes.”

An American hearing about “hopes” would probably think immediately about finding cures for hard-to-treat ailments like diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. I suspect that most Koreans read the words somewhat differently. They hope that South Korean can still become a world leader in a scientific field.

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