Reflecting on Sasai tragedy, STAP, and today’s flawed world of science

Today has been a dark day of mourning for science following the death by suicide of Dr. Yoshiki Sasai. I did not know Dr. Sasai personally, but was very impressed with his work. His suicide leaves me feeling very sad and it seems like an appropriate time for reflection.

It’s not clear why he took his own life, but it is reasonable to surmise that aspects of the STAP cell mess had a prominent role.

After the STAP paper situation went wild in the media in Japan and became a political hot potato there, it seemed that Sasai was being scapegoated. Even though others were relatively far more responsible for the STAP troubles than he seemed to be, he shouldered more of the burden. Some of that burden he probably took on himself because of his love for the RIKEN CDB.

Sasai should be remembered for his entire career’s exceptional work and not for STAP. If he made missteps on STAP, my impression was that it was at least in part due to being too trusting and then wanting to go after the truly big, transformative discovery that STAP seemed to be. As to the latter, in today’s world of science everybody is supposed to be going after transformative discoveries, right? Otherwise you won’t be funded. It’s not an excuse for the STAP travails, but a relevant reality faced by all scientists.

How much do you trust and how fast do you go with projects and papers? How much risk do you take?

While STAP was supposed to be all about cells under various kinds of intense pressure and stress subsequently reacting by turning into stem cells, perhaps the real and now tragic story of STAP is instead all about the reactions of scientists under painfully intense pressure and stress. That’s in a way a mirror of the larger flawed, acid bath world of science today that we all share. In a sense we are all in that same boat in one way or another. What can we do to make the situation better?

14 thoughts on “Reflecting on Sasai tragedy, STAP, and today’s flawed world of science

  1. Dear Dr.Knoepfler

    I am really sad of this news and my heart got hurt as one of Japanese citizens.I really pray for his R.I.P.
    To “make the situation better”, please don’t make vicious cycle anymore. This sad story was not made by just one person,and many facts were involved.
    I truly would like to ask you to consider this as comprehensive problem throughout science society and Japanese society.It seems that punishing on just one person is not productive in both societies,at least,in my opinion.

    Best regard.

  2. Scientists, directly or indirectly, have been part of or compliant with this rat-race of publication frenzy/looking for the holy grail of scientific achievement at all costs for a long time. This is not an isolated case, unfortuanately, but rather the tip of the iceberg. Instead of reconsidering the way research is conducted as a whole, the blame was put exclusively on the most vulnerable individual so that business could continue as usual after a while. The world of research is full of hypocrisy and egocentrism.

  3. I think there are several facets to this tragedy. Some of it, the part which ultimately led to the suicide, are Japanese-specific, such as the high-social pressure to never loose your face and suicide as an honorable way of taking responsibility. Then there is the media who once again showed no pity and mercilessly pursued the people involved without regard how this would affect their families or other social surroundings. This is clearly not Japanese-specific and is a worrying trend in our modern society. Last but not least there is the scientific part. On a superficial level a quick way to avoid falsification of data might be to always have 2 PhD students/PostDocs lead a project together. In most cases of fraud I remember there were single people trying to cheat and having 2 people would significantly lower the chances of this, because it is unlikely they would both agree on taking the risk. The peer reviewers and Editors also failed in this case to do their job, which I think can at least partly be attributed to the ever increasing amount of submissions, which make it difficult to really review articles in depth as intended by the system. The recent trend of increasing retractions underlines that this is a serious problem which needs to be addressed by the journals themselves first. On a deeper level lie some problems which are inherent to the current system in life science and I think there are 2 aspects to it: 1) The uber-competitive nature of life science nowadays which manifests itself in a race for high impact publications and grants. Paradoxically this situation seems to be self-inflicted in the recent life sciences, as other disciplines such as Chemistry and Physics are far less authorship position, etc. focused. Nevertheless they still manage to receive large scale funding for high risk projects such as CERN or ITER. And 2) The competitive mindset of some of the most important people involved. This second reason is often overlooked, but I think the current system favors and attracts people who have a very aggressive, competitive approach to science. Especially in the stem cell field there seems to be a lot of bad blood and backstabbing as far as I can tell from the outside. In the external study that RIKEN requested to investigate the STAP case there are some worrying signs that RIKEN CDB in Kobe as a whole was driven by some of the responsible people to by all means surpass the iPS discovery in Kyoto. Overall, I think many people are aware of the flaws of the system, but it is slow and painful to change.

    • The solution you proposed to avoid falsification of data by letting 2 PhD students/PostDocs to lead a project together is impractical and wishful thinking. This will certainly leads to war for first authorship, confusion of responsibility, malicious competition and lost of motivation at some time point.

      • Having 2 people lead a project together is already common practice in many projects simply because one person alone can hardly generate the ever increasing data required for a high impact publication. See the rise in equal contributions. So I don’t think it is unrealistic. I think nowadays especially when you look at Nature, Cell and Science papers shared first authorship is the rule rather than the exception…

        • Sure there are more and more shared first authorship, even shared second or corresponding authorship is not rare to see. But people mostly view those as results of politics inside and between labs. As long as this view is prevalent, the first listed authorship is worth fighting for. You would not expect a postdoc/graduate student to be happy if his/her authorship on a project that he/she has worked for 3 years is not agreed on.

    • I think it is important to remember that Dr. Obokata is not a postdoc or a Ph.D. student. She is more like a non-tenure-track adjunct professor, if she were in a university. She is a unit leader with a five-year non-renewable contract. So I am not sure if forcing a pair system on to a researcher at that level is realistic/possible.

      I also think that we should not be the so-called “cultural essentialists.” I agree with you that there are issues that were specific to present Japan that have contributed to Dr. Sasai’s decision to commit suicide, but I know a lot of Japanese people to whom the face is a small part of their concerns and A LOT of Americans who care about that, even if they don’t use the expression.

      Either way, I feel sad about Dr. Sasai’s passing as an (overseas) Japanese citizen because this is not really the time for the country to lose great talent like him. We lost so many lives and got many lingering problems because of the earthquakes and tsunami in 2011. Let’s mourn for now.

    • One thing that still doesn’t get in my mind is why Obokata would falsify her results and expect to get away with it. That might have also been a reason why none of her supervisors OR the reviewers and editors considered that as a serious option, because it just plainly does not make sense to publish a fake technique which other people are sure to try out. Also, after the investigation by RIKEN and the retraction of the papers it would have been logical to admit fraud but Obokata didn’t but instead promised to reproduce the results. This might be a kind of psychological defiance reaction. Or not.

      Also today, the chief of the reform panel of RIKEN spoke up and said Dr. Sasais death could have been avoided if the measures proposed in the report would have been implemented (although this is questionable I think):

      I am still waiting for a statement from Nature regarding the suicide. They reported on this in today’s issue as if they were not involved at all. I expect some comment from them as to how they want to avoid such disasters in the future…

      • I have no idea why Dr. Obokata continues insisting on STAP theory, either, Mr. Siebert. Also, we should keep in mind that Dr. Sasai had a legal right to resign from his position, no matter what his boss said, if he wanted to. At least he could have made public that it was his wish. But he didn’t, whether good or bad.

        I would not take Dr. Kishi’s comment at face value. He probably wanted to say that it wasn’t the panel report that caused Dr. Sasai’s passing, and I think the report was fine pointing out the problems with the scientific aspects of the STAP papers. At the same time,I have been wondering about the quality of it as a social, legal, and institutional proposal.

        Either way, a tragedy like this one makes us think what could have done to prevent it from happening, but we also know that we can never nail down on one cause. So many issues must have factored in as Dr. Sasai made his very personal and sad decision, and we may never know all of them. But I think it is a good idea for us to reflect on philosophical issues like Dr. Knoepfler proposes.

  4. I think you are making an excellent point. What you say is true not just in natural sciences but also in other fields in academia.

  5. Would I be amiss if I said the lesson is simply “don’t cheat in science”? I mean, what else is there? Sure the media are sometimes out of control, and yes, Japanese handle the consequences of scandal differently than in the rest of the world, but the cause of all of this was bad science.

  6. In science history, there is a precedence to Dr. Yoshiki Sasai’s suicide, and Dr. Haruko Obokata’s sloppy record keeping of research data. In 1926, Paul Kammerer committed suicide, when his forgery on midwife toads were exposed. For those interested in this case, I suggest the review by Sandor Gliboff in Endeavour journal (Dec.2005, 29, 162-167.

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