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Some thoughts about the suicide of Yoshiki Sasai.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In the previous post I suggested that it’s a mistake to try to understand scientific activity (including misconduct and culpable mistakes) by focusing on individual scientists, individual choices, and individual responsibility without also considering the larger community of scientists and the social structures it creates and maintains. That post was where I landed after thinking about what was bugging me about the news coverage and discussions about recent suicide of Yoshiki Sasai, deputy director of the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, and coauthor of retracted papers on STAP cells.

I went toward teasing out the larger, unproductive pattern I saw, on the theory that trying to find a more productive pattern might help scientific communities do better going forward.

But this also means I didn’t say much about my particular response to Sasai’s suicide and the circumstances around it. I’m going to try to do that here, and I’m not going to try to fit every piece of my response into a larger pattern or path forward.

The situation in a nutshell:

Yoshiki Sasai worked with Haruko Obokata at the Riken Center on “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency”, a method by which exposing normal cells to a stress (like a mild acid) supposedly gave rise to pluripotent stem cells. It’s hard to know how closely they worked together on this; in the papers published on STAP. Obokata was the lead-author and Sasai was a coauthor. It’s worth noting that Obokata was some 20 years younger than Sasai, an up-and-coming researcher. Sasai was a more senior scientist, serving in a leadership position at the Riken Center and as Obokata’s supervisor there.

The papers were published in a high impact journal (Nature) and got quite a lot of attention. But then the findings came into question. Other researchers trying to reproduce the findings that had been reported in the papers couldn’t reproduce them. One of the images in the papers seemed to be a duplicate of another, which was fishy. Nature investigated, Riken investigated, the papers were retracted, Obokata continued to defend the papers and to deny any wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, a Riken investigation committee said “Sasai bore heavy responsibility for not confirming data for the STAP study and for Obokata’s misconduct”. This apparently had a heavy impact on Sasai:

Sasai’s colleagues at Riken said he had been receiving mental counseling since the scandal surrounding papers on STAP, or stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, cells, which was lead-authored by Obokata, came to light earlier this year.

Kagaya [head of public relations at Riken] added that Sasai was hospitalized for nearly a month in March due to psychological stress related to the scandal, but that he “recovered and had not been hospitalized since.”

Finally, Sasai hanged himself in a Riken stairwell. One of the notes he left, addressed to Obokata, urged her to reproduce the STAP findings.

So, what is my response to all this?

I think it’s good when scientists take their responsibilities seriously, including the responsibility to provide good advice to junior colleagues.

I also think it’s good when scientists can recognize the limits. You can give very, very good advice — and explain with great clarity why it’s good advice — but the person you’re giving it to may still choose to do something else. It can’t be your responsibility to control another autonomous person’s actions.

I think trust is a crucial part of any supervisory or collaborative relationship. I think it’s good to be able to interact with coworkers with the presumption of trust.

I think it’s awful that it’s so hard to tell which people are not worthy of our trust before they’ve taken advantage of our trust to do something bad.

Finding the right balance between being hands-on and giving space is a challenge in the best of supervisory or mentoring relationships.

Bringing an important discovery with the potential to enable lots of research that could ultimately help lots of people to one’s scientific peers — and to the public — must feel amazing. Even if there weren’t a harsh judgment from the scientific community for retraction, I imagine that having to say, “We jumped the gun on the ‘discovery’ we told you about” would not feel good.

The danger of having your research center’s reputation tied to an important discovery is what happens if that discovery doesn’t hold up, whether because of misconduct or mistakes. And either way, this means that lots of hard work that is important in the building of the shared body of scientific knowledge (and lots of people doing that hard work) can become invisible.

Maybe it would be good to value that work on its own merits, independent of whether anyone else judged it important or newsworthy. Maybe we need to rethink the “big discoveries” and “important discoverers” way of thinking about what makes scientific work or a research center good.

Figuring out why something went wrong is important. When the something that went wrong includes people making choices, though, this always seems to come down to assigning blame. I feel like that’s the wrong place to stop.

I feel like investigations of results that don’t hold up, including investigations that turn up misconduct, should grapple with the question of how can we use what we found here to fix what went wrong? Instead of just asking, “Whose fault was this?” why not ask, “How can we address the harm? What can we learn that will help us avoid this problem in the future?”

I think it’s a problem when a particular work environment makes the people in it anxious all the time.

I think it’s a problem when being careful feels like an unacceptable risk because it slows you down. I think it’s a problem when being first feels more important than being sure.

I think it’s a problem when a mistake of judgment feels so big that you can’t imagine a way forward from it. So disastrous that you can’t learn something useful from it. So monumental that it makes you feel like not existing.

I feel like those of us who are still here have a responsibility to pay attention.

We have a responsibility to think about the impacts of the ways science is done, valued, celebrated, on the human beings who are doing science — and not just on the strongest of those human beings, but also on the ones who may be more vulnerable.

We have a responsibility to try to learn something from this.

I don’t think what we should learn is not to trust, but how to be better at balancing trust and accountability.

I don’t think what we should learn is not to take the responsibilities of oversight seriously, but to put them in perspective and to mobilize more people in the community to provide more support in oversight and mentoring.

Can we learn enough to shift away from the Important New Discovery model of how we value scientific contributions? Can we learn enough that cooperation overtakes competition, that building the new knowledge together and making sure it holds up is more important than slapping someone’s name on it? I don’t know.

I do know that, if the pressures of the scientific career landscape are harder to navigate for people with consciences and easier to navigate for people without consciences, it will be a problem for all of us.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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