People who know me or read my blog will know that, in 1987, my father, a scientist at the NIH, killed himself after a member of his lab committed scientific fraud and he got caught up in the investigation. So I found the news this morning that Yoshiki Sasai, a Japanese stem cell scientist, committed suicide in the wake of the STAP controversy disturbing.
I don’t know all of the details, but the parallels between the two cases are haunting. As was the case with my father, it does not seem like anyone thinks Sasai was involved in the fraud. But as the senior scientists involved, both Sasai and my father bore the brunt of the institutional criticism, and both seem to have been far more disturbed by it than the people who actually committed the fraud.
It is impossible to know why they both responded to situations where they apparently did nothing wrong by killing themselves. But it is hard for me not to place at least part of the blame on the way the scientific community responds to scientific misconduct.
Obviously, fraud is a terrible thing. Nothing provides as deep an existential threat to the scientific enterprise than making up data. But as bad as it is, there is something deeply ugly about the way the scientific community responds to misconduct. We need to deal swiftly with fraud when it is identified. But time after time I have watched the way not only the accused, but everyone around them, is treated with such sanctimonious disdain it is frankly not surprising that some of them respond in tragic ways.
Imagine what it must be like to have devoted your life to science, and then to discover that someone in your midst – someone you have some role in supervising – has committed the ultimate scientific sin. That in and of itself must be disturbing enough. Indeed I remember how upset my father was as he was trying to prove that fraud had taken place. But then imagine what it must feel like to all of a sudden become the focal point for scrutiny – to experience your colleagues and your field casting you aside. It must feel like your whole world is collapsing around you, and not everybody has the mental strength to deal with that.
Of course everyone will point out that Sasai was overreacting – just as they did with my father. Neither was accused of anything. But that is bullshit. We DO act like everyone involved in cases of fraud is responsible. We do this because when fraud happens, we want it to be a singularity. We are all so confident this could never happen to us, that it must be that somebody in a position of power was lax – the environment was flawed. It is there in the institutional response. And it is there in the whispers – I still remember how the faculty in my graduate department talked about David Baltimore during the Imanishi-Kari incident.
Given the horrible incentive structure we have in science today – Haruko Obokata knew that a splashy result would get a Nature paper and make her famous and secure her career if only she got that one result showing that you could create stem cells by dipping normal cells in acid – it is somewhat of a miracle that more people don’t make up results on a routine basis. It is important that we identify, and come down hard, on people who cheat (although I wish this would include the far greater number of people who overhype their results – something that is ultimately more damaging than the small number of people who out and out commit fraud).
But the next time something like this happens, I am begging you to please be careful about how you respond. Recognize that, while invariably fraud involves a failure not just of honesty but of oversight, most of the people involved are honest, decent scientists, and that witch hunts meant to pretend that this kind of thing could not happen to all of us are not just gross and unseemly – they can, and sadly do, often kill.