Good Science – a matter of trust?

Good Science – a matter of trust?

Good Science – a matter of trust?

In January 2014, a young Japanese scientist, Dr Haruko Obokata, hit the limelight for her game-changing research that established a cheap, simple and effective way to produce stem cells*.

Her method was so simple that it defied belief. She claimed to have dipped mature adult cells into an acid solution for 30 minutes, the result being that they were ‘shocked’ into reverting to stem cells.

Stem cells are all the rage in scientific circles right now. They are cells that have the potential to transform into any cell. They are regarded as a beacon of hope in the treatment of many disease processes such as Alzheimer’s disease. They have the potential to repair damaged tissue such as heart tissues after a heart attack, and nerve tissue following spinal injury.

Dr Obokata’s study seemed to have changed the scope for stem cell therapy forever – suddenly this complex and expensive technique was going to be affordable, simple and more widely available. The hype was enormous.

Dr Haruko Obokata became a bit of a ‘rock star’ in scientific circles, and for a period of time was elevated from ordinary scientist working quietly in a laboratory to poster-girl and ‘über-scientist’. She was published in the most prestigious science journal, ‘Nature’, and had her photos all over the scientific and conventional press.

However, as the months rolled on alarming cracks started to show. Scientists in laboratories around the world simply could not replicate her results[i].

When it was discovered that the wrong images had been posted with the article, it was the straw that broke the already shaky study’s back; it was now deemed to be so error riddled that is was completely unreliable.

Dr Obokata was found guilty of misconduct. Her career in science was over. Her supervisor and co-author, criticised for failing to detect the significant errors in her work, committed suicide.

The reputation and credibility of one of the most respected scientific journals, ‘Nature’, received a significant blow.

The publishers of ‘Nature’ had no choice but to offer a written retraction, stating that while it was not possible for them to have "detected the fatal faults in this work”, they were now aware that there were important flaws to be addressed in both their procedures and those of the scientific institutions which published with them.

…for as the debacle unfolded, the editors at Nature acknowledged that corrections for many studies were being published, and at an increasing rate; a sure sign that something in the scientific publication process is going seriously wrong.

The problems are not limited to publication.

Poor scientific protocols, lack of care and accountability in major research institutions, hunger for results and notoriety over substance and true value, lax standards in peer review processes even in the most prestigious of journals – all of them were on show in this episode. Highlighting the endemic nature of the problems, Nature’s senior editors stated “We – research funders, research practitioners, institutions and journals – need to put quality assurance and laboratory professionalism ever higher on our agendas to ensure that the money entrusted by governments is not squandered, and that citizens’ trust in science is not betrayed[ii].

But why on earth did it take embarrassment of such epic proportions for quality assurance to be placed higher on their agendas? Surely high standards of quality ought to be the most foundational aspect of science and its publication process in all instances. That this statement was made by one of the most highly respected of scientific publications is concerning to say the least.

Those of us who are non-scientists might say “so what?” about this story. The tale of an aspiring scientist’s career going belly-up and a suicide are very sad, but they hardly seem relevant to our everyday lives. The same disinterest could be applied to the story of a prestigious scientific journal getting the egg of major embarrassment all over its ‘face’. Of what importance is that in a world challenged by far more immediate and unsolvable issues?

The problem with this particular egg is that it is a large one… ostrich sized in fact… and the spatter from it has covered us all, no matter how far removed from science we like to imagine we are…

The truth is that the lives of every one of us are profoundly affected by science – be it correctly done or false, misleading or inaccurate. For it is evidence based science that is being used to influence every aspect of our ‘brave’ new evidence-based world. It is those experiments, implicitly trusted because they are peer reviewed, published and reproduced, that determine the medical and psychological therapies and interventions we receive, and the medicines we take. They form the basis of the health care, social, environmental and education policies of our nations. They determine the way our buildings are constructed, our cars are built, the types of fuel we use to run our energy hungry lives…

Science profoundly shapes every aspect of life – it influences the way we think about, relate to and understand ourselves, each other and all life on this planet.

Never has this been more the case than now. Evidence-based science has become the arbiter of our truth. We are attempting to make it the founding principle of human life… and we have done this as a matter of trust.

Dr Obokata and her stem cell story is more than a one off episode of a scientist getting ‘caught out’ or a personal tragedy. It is a red flag too. Science as it is currently practised has offered us great insights, but we cannot ever forget that it is not free from human failings, biases, errors and agendas, and its results and conclusions are never beyond question.

There are two important aspects offered here for contemplation.

The first is that science is being clearly shown that it must clean up its act, now. From funding, to experimental processes and methods, to publication – not a single stone can be left unturned by government, private research institutions, the peer reviewers of journals and scientists themselves in exposing and dealing with the multiplicity of problems. With its position of supremacy in our world, science holds equally high levels of responsibility and accountability. The harm of continuing on the current reckless trajectory and shirking this is enormous.

The second point comes back to us, the everyday people of this world. Science is flawed, but this does not mean that we wash our hands of it and walk away in disgust. But it does highlight our responsibility to not be disempowered by what we know and don’t know about science. We all have the capacity to stop and to discern for ourselves before we get swept away in excited fervour over the latest findings, the ones that seem to offer quick fixes to the terrible dilemmas that we ourselves are creating by our reckless ways of life. Burgeoning disease, social discord, environmental problems in the scientific era are calling for us to stop investing so heavily in science to deliver the mythical silver bullet, the simple, cheap and painless answer to our problems. A blissful future, brought to us by science, is not on our horizon. Dr Obokata’s tale makes that abundantly clear.

Our true future lies closer to home in our willingness to the see the truth about life and to measure what we are told against the quality of our living way.

That is the science of our future.

References ----------

  • [i]

    Cyranoski, D. (2014). Stem-cell method faces fresh questions Papers describing acid-bath technique under more scrutiny after institute’s investigation finds errors in methodology. Nature, 507(7492). p 283 doi:10.1038/507283a

  • [ii]

    STAP retracted (2014). Two retractions highlight long-standing issues of trust and sloppiness that must be addressed. Nature 511(7507). pp:5–6 (03 July 2014)

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  • Photography: Clayton Lloyd