Editorial: Don’t Penalize All of RIKEN CDB for STAP Cell Flap

As the STAP cell fiasco has evolved, there has been discussion of various possible resolutions or even penalties for those involved, both institutions and individuals.

One of the most extreme and I believe way out of proportion potential outcomes suggested has been the dismantling of RIKEN’s entire Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe. An outside reform panel has reportedly suggested to RIKEN President Ryoji Noyori that CDB be dissolved.

RIKEN CDB

While it is true that Obokata was working at CDB and a few other on the STAP cell papers were also at CDB, this does not in any way suggest that the CDB as a whole has systemic problems that would make the center’s dissolution a rational and helpful act. As best as I can tell there is no indication that the CDB as a whole is anything but a premier international center of excellence in developmental biology with the vast majority of labs entirely unlinked to STAP. In fact, many of the PIs of the CDB rather early on in the STAP scandal posted a responsible letter on the situation. They also include many stellar scientists.

Perhaps it is appropriate for a few specific individual parties at CDB to resign (and indeed some resignations are unfolding or seem inevitable) and for RIKEN to conduct some important reforms at CDB, but to dissolve all of CDB would be unfair and unwise. It would be bad policy and bad for science.

Some have pointed to a potential silver lining in this situation though. Indeed it is worth noting that folks in the know say that even if CDB is dissolved, it will almost certainly be reformed with mostly the same people under a new name. Still, how that would play out is unclear and some scientists could well unfairly have their careers damaged.

At this point it is not clear that logic has much to do with STAP anymore. It is more of a political than scientific or rational situation at this point moving forward.

6 thoughts on “Editorial: Don’t Penalize All of RIKEN CDB for STAP Cell Flap


  1. You seem to misunderstand the point.

    The biggest problem of CDB in this STAP fiasco is that they have not clarified
    (or even tried to clarify) those who have been involved in the series of misconducts. The voluntary investigations outside of CDB pointed out that
    STAP papers are completely bogus and indicated that Obokata seems to be
    not capable of thinking of or conducting all these fabrications (e.g., http://www.nikkei-science.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/20140611STAP.pdf). Masatoshi Takeichi (director of CDB) and Yoshiki Sasai
    (dupty director of CDB) deliberately ignored the scientific evidences of the
    misconducts, just insulted them as “nonsense”, and sticked to the reproductive
    experiment (of the fabrications?). In addition, the RIKEN reformation committee
    pointed out that the topsiders of CDB were involved in the recruitment and
    selection process of Obokata, and the process was all the setup (http://www3.riken.jp/stap/j/d7document15.pdf). Although a few honest and
    courageous researchers of CDB conducted self-check, but they failed to
    address the above issues probably because the topsiders burked the
    inconvenient truth.

    Despite the above doubts on CDB (RIKEN) as an organization, surprisingly,
    the preliminary investigation (by RIKEN) for the thorough investigation on the
    two Nature papers has just begun *TODAY*. Before defending them, you have
    to demand CDB (RIKEN) to publish English translation of the report of the
    RIKEN reformation committee (http://www3.riken.jp/stap/j/d7document15.pdf),
    and ask Nikkei-Science (and/or Scientific American) to publish English
    translation of the excellent article “STAP cells unmasked”
    (Nikkei-Science, August 2014, pp.55-61, http://www.nikkei-science.com/201408_054.html).


  2. The use of the word “dismantling” by the reform committee was infelicitous. What they actually proposed was replacing all of the CDB top management and then in effect doing a zero-based restructuring of CDB. Their report also pointed out many problems (such as the irregular process that led to the hiring of Dr. Obokata as a Team Unit Leader); Riken has not yet responded to these items. An English language version of the reform committee report is now being prepared.

    Disclosure: As I tweeted at the time the reform committee report was released (and shortly thereafter) I worried that Riken could game the system by just changing the name of CDB to something else and claiming this as a dismantling. Also, I said that the reform committee should be faulted for accepting without criticism Riken’s “STAP replication experiment,” which strikes me as a waste of time and money.


  3. I am a Japanese researcher. The external committee suggest the dismantling of CDB not because of the misconduct by Dr. Obokata but because managers of CDB did some incorrect actions when they selected Dr. Obokata as a PI. As Dr. Geller mentions, the external committee requires a zero-based restructuring. Actually, the committee requires to protect the hiring of other CDB researchers. However, I think CDB managers intentionally distort the meaning of “dismantling” to protect themselves.


    • I heard CDB leaders asked foreign researchers to help them by criticizing the decision by the external committee. However, they are not fair at all. When they asked help, they did not tell foreign researchers what they had done. If you hear that CDB is dismantled because of one misconduct, you think that is stupid. But, what do you think if you hear following story? Dr. Obokata did not have a very good track record compared with other candidates who applied to the position. She could not prepare her application until the deadline and there was no recommendation letters. However, because one of the CDB leaders was a friend of Dr. Vacanti, they selected her as a unit leader without serious investigation (a unit leader can use $200,000-300,000/year). As the same members have managed CDB since the establishment, they could not criticize each other. Some leaders have reached retiring age determined by RIKEN, but they remain in CDB as advisers. Moreover, though it is determined that the director must mentor unit leaders, he did not do any responsibilities. The external committee required a reconstruction of the institute by kicking out current CDB leaders. The committee required to protect hiring of other researchers and their projects. Do you still think it is stupid?

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