GENET archive


9-Misc: Three faces of science fraud

                                 PART I
------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Three faces of science fraud
SOURCE: The San Diego Union-Tribune, USA, by David Schubert
DATE:   16 Feb 2006

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Three faces of science fraud

There has recently been a great deal of media attention directed toward
Woo Suk Hwang, the Korean scientist who fabricated results concerning a
technical advance in the field of stem cell research. While this sort of
behavior is indefensible, it is perhaps the least harmful among the
different types of scientific fraud that are currently taking place.

The reason for this is that in the world of academic science to which
Hwang belongs, incorrect new claims are rapidly discovered and discarded
because other laboratories cannot reproduce them. However, if fraud is
defined as the creation or manipulation of data to achieve a specific
end, then the type of scientific misconduct perpetrated by some
industries and the Bush administration is much more serious and has led
to extensive human suffering.

The goal of academic science is both to develop a rational understanding
of the world and to create ideas and technologies for human benefit. The
product of this work is usually data published as manuscripts in
scientific journals. Scientists send a manuscript describing their work
to a journal, the editors then forward it to two or three expert
reviewers, and a judgement is made as to whether the conclusions from
the data are correct and of sufficient interest to publish.

In reality, publication is more complicated because of the goals of the
scientists and the perceived eminence of the journals. Although the
major interest of most scientists is the creation of knowledge, for
others it is primarily self-promotion. The latter group, which I assume
includes Dr. Hwang, puts more pressure on the high-profile journals to
publish their work because these journals receive more media attention
and are seen by science administrators as being more prestigious,
leading to better jobs and more research support for the scientist.

However, irrespective of the scientist's goal, if the work is important,
it is going to be repeated by other laboratories. In the case of Hwang,
the techniques that have led to his notoriety could not be substantiated
and the fraud was rapidly detected.

In contrast, the type of scientific fraud that is carried out by some
industries and biotech companies, whose only goal is to sell a product,
is often not rapidly self-correcting. The government regulates
commercial entities that have the potential to make harmful products,
but there is continual pressure on politicians and regulatory agencies
to reduce regulatory requirements. The well-orchestrated procedures to
use fraudulent science to sell a product were first developed by the
tobacco companies, and the success rate using this technique has greatly
accelerated with our current administration in Washington.

If there is opposition to the introduction of a product from a consensus
of scientists, usually in the form of proposals for increased government
oversight, then companies will employ their own scientists to publish
manuscripts in an attempt to discredit the consensus. These manuscripts
frequently contain experiments that only have an illusionary relevance
to the problem, but are used in PR campaigns to create scientific
uncertainty about the science in order to block the regulation.

There are several recent examples of the success of this approach. The
chemical industry used it to persuade the Environmental Protection
Agency to roll back regulations that require companies to notify
neighborhoods that are being exposed to toxic waste that most scientists
say is dangerous. The plant biotech industry has repeatedly made false
claims about the safety of their genetically engineered, or GE, food
crops and has tried to discredit scientists who publish manuscripts
showing that they are harmful. For example, several years ago Dr. Arpad
Pusztai showed that GE potatoes cause serious health problems in rats,
resulting in the harassment by the plant biotech industry and ultimately
in his dismissal from his academic position. Since then, several other
scientists have shown that different GE food crops cause similar
problems, and it was discovered that one of the companies that tried to
discredit Pusztai withheld their own data showing that GE corn is toxic
to animals.

As a result of this disingenuous behavior of the chemical and plant
biotech industries, there is a moratorium in many European countries on
the cultivation of GE food crops and a requirement that all new
chemicals that are consumed or reach the environment be extensively
tested for safety.

An even greater impact of fraudulent science on human health arises from
the control that the White House is now exerting over regulatory
agencies such as the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration. In the
past, these agencies have operated as independent entities, and their
decisions were based upon the best science available. Recently, however,
these agencies have been forced to bend the facts of science to fit the
political agenda of the Bush administration. Examples of this behavior
abound, from the rewrite of an EPA study on global warming to the recent
report that Jay Slack, a senior member of the Department of Interior's
Fish and Wildlife Service, deliberately faked environmental impact data
that allowed the development of a housing development in the Everglades.
For this well-documented political manipulation of science, he was
promoted within the department. Finally, fraudulent statements have
appeared on government Web sites claiming that some birth control
medications and devices are either carcinogenic or ineffective. The
global extension of these positions will be disastrous for the Earth and
have already increased death and suffering due to AIDS and
overpopulation in African countries, where U.S. policy has reduced
access to contraception.

The examples outlined above demonstrate that scientific fraud carried
out by both industry and government is not uncommon in the United
States. Similar behavior in the academic community may also be growing
in proportion to the increase in the number of scientists and the
competition for limited funding and job opportunities. However, the
consequences of industrial and government fraud are far worse than
academic misconduct, for the former are often neither self correcting
nor reversible until a great deal of damage is done.

Schubert is a professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

                                 PART II
------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Rethinking research cloning?
DATE:   23 Feb 2006

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Rethinking research cloning?

Of all the peculiarities of the stem cell debate, perhaps the strangest
lies with the technique variously known as research cloning, biomedical
cloning, or somatic cell nuclear transfer. Only a tiny portion of the
work on embryonic stem cells taking place today involves research
cloning, yet it accounts for nearly all the serious problems associated
with stem cell research--the practice of putting women at risk to obtain
their eggs, the prospect of medical treatments unaffordable to all but
the extremely wealthy, and the risk of cloned embryos being misused in
efforts to produce cloned or genetically modified children.

Yet cloned human embryos have become a sought-after prize, and
researchers have declared a renewed "cloning race" now that the claims
of Hwang Woo-Suk and his colleagues have been discredited. Hwang,
possibly along with other members of his research team, committed fraud
and deception in pursuit of the fortune and fame they believed research
cloning would deliver. Women are being asked to undergo significant
health risks to provide eggs to enable it. Advocates of stem cell
research have used it to make fantastical promises of miracle cures and
"personal repair kits." Should we be rethinking research cloning?

Though many researchers acknowledge (at least privately) that such
claims about individually tailored stem cell treatments are untenable--if
only because their cost would make them commercially unrealizable--they
still abound. In the sales-pitch environment that has resulted, clear
thinking and reasoned discussion are difficult. A more realistic and
limited case for research cloning, which presents it as a tool for
investigation of cellular development or drug efficacy, would produce
more nuanced understanding and more productive deliberations.

Even in the wake of the ongoing cloning scandal, in which unethical and
illegal conduct in the procurement of women's eggs figure large, many
stem cell advocates continue to collapse the important distinction
between research cloning and embryonic stem cell research in general--the
vast majority of which is conducted with cell lines derived from embryos
created but not needed for fertility treatments. Journalistic accounts
often unknowingly echo this misleading conflation.

A recent example is an op-ed in the February 16 New York Times <http://> by Dartmouth
neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga. The piece begins by accurately noting
that President Bush, in his State of the Union address, misleadingly
used the phrase "human cloning in all its forms" as "code, a way of
conflating very different things: reproductive cloning and biomedical
cloning." But Gazzaniga then proceeds to move his own argument--that the
cloning scandal should have no impact on the conduct of research in this
country--by blurring the difference between stem cell research and
biomedical cloning.

Fortunately, some realism seems to be penetrating the research cloning
debate. A few closely involved commentators are now acknowledging its
impracticality, and the "minor role" it is likely to play in embryonic
stem cell research.

An article by prominent stem cell researchers in the New England Journal
of Medicine <> calls
into question the emphasis that many stem cell research advocates and
scientists have placed on the cloning technique, even while it supports
continuing work in the area and downplays the significance of the
cloning scandal. The Burnham Institute's Evan Snyder and Jeanne Loring
argue that the Hwang scandal shows that "the system of peer scrutiny
works" and reject what they call "untutored government regulation." But
they go on to write that "the specific indications for SCNT in our work
remain uncertain....SCNT...plays only a minor role in the wider discipline
of stem-cell biology--a branch of developmental biology that has no lack
of other challenges to occupy its practitioners' time."

In South Korea, a presidential ethics panel said early this month
that it will reconsider whether to permit research cloning in that
country. "The fabrication of stem cells by Hwang prompted some committee
members to question whether it is possible to put the research into
practical use," said Cho Han-ik, vice president of the committee. "We
discussed whether to even allow research of somatic cell nucleus transfer."

Related article:
"South Korean Cloning Scandal Takes Toll on Whistle-Blowers," Los
Angeles Times (February 16).


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