Stem Cell Fraud Deserves Capital Punishment

Stem Cell Fraud Deserves Capital Punishment
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Yesterday news broke that a stem cell research discovery hailed as “groundbreaking” will be retracted as fraudulent. The potential impact of the finding was huge: an easy way to turn mouse blood cells into stem cells with the ability to differentiate and grow into many different types of cells.

Oversights and accidents happen. But this was clearly no mistake.

Haruko Obakata, a Japanese biologist, intentionally fabricated data and images. Her work was published in the journal Nature -- among the world’s most prestigious -- this January. It didn’t take long for suspicion to arise. Other researchers could not replicate the results. Soon discrepancies and suspicious images were found in the report. The RIKEN institute where the work was carried out is in the process of investigating the situation and punishing those involved.

Few disciplines rely so heavily on objective truth for their foundational security as science. Fundamental breaches of this trust are intolerable and unsustainable.

What then is the best way to stop this type of cheating? Make the penalty so severe that no one is willing to do it. When someone does it anyway? Give their career the death penalty.

Further, make the penalties for everyone else involved with the cheater stiff too. Collaborators bare their own responsibility to vet the findings carrying their name.

A paper usually has several listed authors. The first author did the most important work and wrote the article; they get the majority of the credit. The final author or authors on the list are the principal investigators, or PIs. They are usually established professors and longstanding experts in their fields who win grants to fund the research. Middle authors contributed to the work from a little to a lot, but did not provide the funding or write the manuscript.

If a published study is found to be fraudulent, the following punishments should be meted out:

All authors who knowingly produced fraudulent results or were aware of those results should be immediately dismissed from their academic positions. Permanently.

But, here’s the kicker: Additionally, the authors should receive a lifetime ban on receiving any government funding for research.

Public funding is the basis of academic science. Further, it’s money from the pocket of every American. Stop the money and you ruin the scientist. A researcher who cannot be funded is unemployable.

This most recent affair demonstrates the failures of one scientist or a small group of scientists. But, it also demonstrates the success of the scientific process: Fewer than four months have passed between the publication of a false claim and its complete discrediting.

Now, we need to find ways to prevent future false claims from being spread. The past severity of punishment has varied.

That must change. The penalty for dishonest research must be capital punishment: Cut these bad apples out of the system for good by removing their funding.

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