South Korea

2 minute read
Bryan Walsh

The panel at Seoul National University (S.N.U.) put it bluntly: “This kind of error is a grave act that damages the foundations of science.” Dr. Hwang Woo Suk, South Korea’s famous stem-cell researcher, had fallen from grace. An S.N.U. investigation into Hwang’s groundbreaking experiments in human cloning found the nation’s top scientist had faked the results of his greatest success. The scandal was a setback not only for the controversial field of embryonic-stem-cell research, but also for the image of scientists as disinterested practitioners pursuing knowledge and truth.

Hwang’s fraudinvestigators ruled that his claims to have cloned human embryos and derived stem cells from them were baselessreminded the world that the scientific method could be perverted by nationalism or the drive for publicity and glory. Not that the cynics needed reminding. A survey of 3,247 scientists published last June by the University of Minnesota and HealthPartners Research Foundation reported that up to a third of the respondents had engaged in ethically dubious practices. But thanks to the international scope of Hwang’s scandal, the public’s faith in sciencerarely unconditional even in times of dazzling technological progresshas taken a hit. “At least in the U.S., my feeling is that people are more mistrustful about science than they used to be,” says Christopher Scott, a Stanford University bioethicist and the author of the new book Stem Cell Now. “In the 1970s the men and women in white coats could do no wrong. That’s not the case now.”

But if one superstar has fallen from his pedestal, science as an institution has ways to recover from its mistakes. It was a group of young Korean researchers operating on the Internet who poked the first holes in Hwang’s work. Scientists by nature are relentlessly self-correctingskepticism is at the heart of the scientific method. As the South Koreans who idolized Hwang have come to learn, blind faith has no place in the laboratory.

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