I suspect no one in the nanotech community is thanking disgraced stem cell researcher Hwang Woo Suk for duping the world about his breakthroughs in cloning. But maybe we should.
The journal Science retracted two papers in January submitted by Hwang and his collaborators at Seoul National University in South Korea and the University of Pittsburgh after discovering that the evidence had been faked. In the first paper, published in February 2004, he claimed to have cloned human embryos. Sixteen months later he reported that he developed a more efficient method for creating new lines of human embryonic stem cells. A whistle-blower blew his cover.
The potential for therapeutic cloning and stem cell-based approaches to overcome diseases such as diabetes or conditions such as paralysis tantalizes researchers with dreams of glory. Hwang gained star status in his native Korea, where he was deemed a candidate for a Nobel Prize. The government issued a stamp in his honor, and gave $43.35 million in the past decade for his research, Reuters reported in February.
Lots of promise. Lots of hype. Lots of temptation and potential for fraud. Sound familiar?
Nanotechnology had a lesser fall from grace in late 2002 when it was discovered that Bell Labs’ physicist Jan Hendrik Schon had fabricated data in molecular electronics studies. Eight papers that appeared in Science in 2000 and 2001 were retracted. The fraud was discovered when his work was proven irreproducible.
The stakes are higher now. Nanotechnology’s profile has been raised with bona fide advancements in cancer therapies, fuel and solar cells, advanced materials and even golf balls. Concerns about its possible toxicological and environmental effects are now part of the public discourse.
The large amounts of federal funding for nano in not only the U.S., Europe and Japan but also in China, Korea and elsewhere have stoked competition among nations. Many countries bet that nanotech, like stem cell research, will lead to huge economic gains as well as social good. The pressure to succeed is great. The mechanisms to ensure honesty and integrity are challenged.
“I have pointed out in the past that even unusually rigorous peer review of the kind we undertook in this case may fail to detect fraud,” said Donald Kennedy, Science’s editor-in-chief, as he announced the retraction of Hwang’s work. Nanotechnology is likely to prove equally difficult to police because of its interdisciplinary nature and novelty.
Since Kennedy’s announcement, Science has implemented a screening test that detects whether images submitted by researchers have been altered. It’s a start. Better yet, maybe Hwang’s professional nose dive will serve as a wakeup call to researchers, their institutions and the governments and corporations that fund them to keep ambitions in line - so concocted results never cross the desk of a journal editor to begin with.
One way to prevent fraud is to reward honesty. Providing sound research on the toxicology of nanoparticles motivates some of the scientists who have taken on the task, as shown in our special report. They recognize that by understanding nanoparticles’ properties, designers can engineer around potential problems. There’s personal satisfaction, if not always glory, in such an approach.
Rewards can be monetary, too. Few people can afford to devote their lives to micro and nanotechnology without receiving compensation in return. Who and how much? We unveil our first salary survey in this issue, based on responses from more than 800 salaried workers.
Candace Stuart is editor-in-chief at Small Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.