Thursday, December 29, 2005

Scientific Fraud

The New York Times is now reporting that the human cloning result of Hwang Woo Suk was completely fabricated. His two Science papers in 2004 and 2005 rocked the scientific community and put South Korea at the forefront of stem cell research. He had planned to open cloning centers around the world to provide research labs with various embryonic stem cell lines. Now, he has been completely disgraced and the field has been set back somewhat.

I think this is an example of how giving unlimited resources to a single individual can lead to bad results. The Korean government gave Hwang almost 40 million dollars since 1998 in hopes of garnering the nation's first Noble prize. He must have felt tremendous pressure to succeed.

I can envision a scenario that led to the fraud. His lab probably had preliminary results that seemed to work but they then couldn't reproduce it. Hwang likely felt frustrated but confident that the method would eventually work so he decided to proceed with publication so they wouldn't get scooped. Maybe he rationalized that there would be little harm to embellish some data to get the news out earlier. In the meantime he would get it to work reliably. He may even have gotten away with it if the papers didn't have as large an impact which led to greater scrutiny of the work.

Sometimes throwing money at a problem does pan out. Examples include the Manhattan project and the Apollo moon mission. In these cases, there was a talented and motivated team focused on the task. There was a sense of urgency but there was also an imperative to be correct. People were checking other people's work because making an error had dire consequences. The participants weren't thinking about future riches or fame. While it is true that Oppenheimer became a household name, he certainly didn't put pressure on the team to succeed so he could become rich and famous. What he did do was assemble the greatest minds of the time.

Will a Manhattan type effort work in biology? I'm not so sure because there is still a lot of basic science to discover. We don't really know what must be done to cure diabetes, malaria or cancer. I think the best thing to do now is to have many labs pursue many different paths. We may even want to divide the money out more evenly than it is now. Someone should do a study to see if it is more cost effective to fund a few big labs or many small labs. I'm betting on the latter.

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