Scandal and the Competitive Nature of Science

Arthur Caplan argues that a questionable research paper on stem cells points to a larger problem of ethics in the scientific community. Caplan, chair of the Department of Medical Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, authored an op-ed in this Sunday's San Jose Mercury News.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Time now for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page.

Every Sunday, newspapers around the country feature opinion pieces opposite the editorial page or in special sections. On Mondays, we choose one and invite the author to share his or her argument and take your calls. This week, we feature Arthur Caplan who co-authored an Op-Ed which appeared in The San Jose Mercury News yesterday. Arthur Caplan is the chair of the department of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania. His piece was titled `South Korean Research Scandal Reflects Ethical Breakdown.' In it, he argues that the scandal points to a larger ethical problem in the scientific community.

If you're a professor, researcher, doctor or scientist, we want to hear from you. How are ethical issues dealt with where you work? Is there pressure to succeed at all costs? Your questions for Arthur Caplan--our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us: totn@npr.org.

And, Arthur Caplan, always good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION. Welcome back.

Dr. ARTHUR CAPLAN (University of Pennsylvania): Hi, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: Refresh our memory, if you will. What led to South Korean scientist Dr. Hwang Woo-suk to withdraw his article in the journal Science, which claimed to have made extraordinary advances in the area of human cloning?

Dr. CAPLAN: So, Dr. Hwang had claimed that he had made the first stem cells from cloned human embryos, so he had two firsts in a single paper. Not only did he have the first, if you will, proven instance of human embryo cloning--taking DNA from a skin cell and putting it into an egg and making it start to behave like an embryo--he claimed that he had extracted stem cells from those embryos and this is the business end of embryos, if you will, that people are so excited about, trying to turn them back into pancreas cells or liver cells or any other types of cells to repair damage to the body.

About maybe, oh, a year ago, rumors began to fly, that were just circulating around--I heard some myself--that he had obtained the eggs used to host the DNA from which the clones were created from people in his own lab. And, Neal, that's a big ethics no-no. You don't go to a lab assistant and say, `You know, how would you like to, quote-unquote, "donate" eggs to this project?' It's just a coercive environment. He said no; he said he hadn't done that. A few months later, it turned out that somebody confessed in the lab that he had done that. So he was caught out there. A couple months...

CONAN: And that he knew it.

Dr. CAPLAN: And that he knew it. A couple of months after that, his partner from the United States, Gerry Schatten said he couldn't work with Hwang anymore because not only had he lied about the eggs, there may have been a snafu about pictures submitted along with the article to Science that basically showed the clones. The long and short of it is, over the past three months, Hwang has been backpedaling fast and saying that there have been technical problems, all kinds of flaws, with his paper, both with the pictures and with the test that would prove that he really had made clones. At least one of his colleagues who co-wrote the article (technical difficulties) made it all up.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. CAPLAN: So last I looked, Hwang was in the hospital being treated for stress, and the South Korean government, which has invested a fortune in this guy, was in turmoil.

CONAN: And you mentioned that the South Korean government had (technical difficulties) this guy. He became, and I don't think it's too much to say this, a national hero. South Korea so far out in front of the rest of the world on this cutting edge technology, he was getting all sorts of scientific and monetary rewards.

Dr. CAPLAN: He really was. He was declared supreme scientist by the Republic of South Korea, $120 million directed toward his lab and he was going to become the head of what was called the world hub for stem cell research. The South Koreans thought they could take the lead since the United States is not doing this kind of work with federal support. They thought here's a place they could take the lead worldwide, supply stem cells from cloned human embryos everywhere and really establish a beach head as the leading nation in this area.

CONAN: We're talking about the perils of high-pressure science with Arthur Caplan on TALK OF THE NATION's Opinion Page today. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Arthur Caplan, I just wanted to follow up on that. With all of that in prospect, with all of those rewards out there, your concern is that--not just in this case, but in others, scientists might be tempted to cut a corner here or there.

Dr. CAPLAN: I really do worry about this. We've seen this kind of corner-cutting; it goes back a ways. If you look even at the Watson and Crick days where they first discovered the (technical difficulties) DNA, the double helix, Jim Watson wrote about this in his sort of retrospective book about the double helix and pointed out that they had kind of squished Linus Pauling and stolen some information from a woman named Rosalind Franklin, none of whom got any prizes for the work. They had cut corners, in other words, and not been generous to their colleagues. No one remembers the other two; people remember Watson and Crick. And that sticks sometimes in the minds of scientists.

You know, we tend to think, Neal, the only thing that makes people go off the ethical rail is money, and money's very important. But in high-powered science, ambition and the drive to be first can really lead to trouble sometimes.

CONAN: Hmm. Let's get a caller on the line. And this is Curtis, Curtis calling us from (technical difficulties).

CURTIS (Caller): Yes, hello.

CONAN: Hi, there.

CURTIS: Hi. I'm calling to say that my experience as a scientist is that money is so important and money is dolled out to scientists for their endeavors in very ideological ways. And many scientists who have been correct, who have had research they've wanted to do that was in contrast with sort of the prevailing ideology, find themselves washed up in their career. They can't get money.

CONAN: When you speak of ideology, Curtis, are you talking about making money, capitalism, or something else?

CURTIS: No. For example, I know a scientist who at one time was pointing out that the effects of acid rain was being misconstrued.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CURTIS: That the leaf litter from long-standing forests in the Adirondacks were creating the acidity that was making the ponds in the Adirondacks unlivable to fish and aquatic features. And he had a terrible time getting anyone to listen to him.

CONAN: Because nobody wanted to hear it.

CURTIS: Nobody wanted to hear it, exactly.

CONAN: Arthur Caplan, is this one of the things that you're worried about?

Dr. CAPLAN: Absolutely. It is very hard to get heard sometimes bucking the mainstream. In the process of the allocation of money--what we're talking about here is grant money, what we're talking about is money in the biomedical area from the National Institutes of Health--it's a very politicized process. You've got to basically make sure that you satisfy your peers, that you're not going to undermine too much, but at the same time incrementally advance. So it's a very delicate balance to obtain the funds.

What people tend to do is they say, `You know, I have to get certain committees to approve what I do. I have to protect human subjects to do what I do, but that's all in the way. What I really need to do is get going fast if I want tenure, if I want promotion, if I want the next grant.' What bothers me is that the culture then generates, if you will, the idea that science is what counts; the ethics has to take a back seat. And I think that's really what got the Koreans in trouble.

CURTIS: Can I make another comment?

CONAN: If you keep it short, Curtis.

CURTIS: Very short comment. Everything about cellular bioenergetics has to do with hydrogen gradients. And the scientists who demonstrated that all of the energetics of living cells has to do with gradients of protons across membranes--I forget what his name is, British scientist. The only way he was able to show this was that he was independently wealthy. Everyone thought he was crazy and everything was held up until he was able to show what actually channels the energetic processes themselves.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CURTIS: And if he hadn't been independently wealthy, we would have been waiting for that breakthrough because nobody would fund that research.

CONAN: Curtis, thanks very much for the call.

CURTIS: Yeah. Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it.

CURTIS: Bye-bye.

CONAN: And let me give you, Arthur Caplan, the last minute. What can we do to repair this situation?

Dr. CAPLAN: Well, I tried to argue in the Op-Ed piece that, first of all, good science, good ethics have to be seen as going hand in hand and you've got to teach post-docs, graduate students, undergraduates that this isn't an either/or; they have to go together. When you send in information to a journal, when you send pictures, when you send data, the peer reviewers, the journal editors have to take it at face value. They're not going to come out to your lab and check. The entire, if you will, engine of science runs on integrity. And if you undermine that integrity, you're going to destroy the science. So it is crucial, absolutely crucial, in the formative years of young scientists to really get that ethics message across, and I think that's key to making sure that things like the Korean incident don't happen.

CONAN: Arthur Caplan, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

Dr. CAPLAN: My pleasure.

CONAN: Arthur Caplan is the chair of the department of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania. His Op-Ed, titled `South Korean Research Scandal Reflects Ethical Breakdowns,' appeared in The San Jose Mercury News Sunday commentary section yesterday. The TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page will appear on this program every Monday.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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