Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sunlight, Stem Cells and Feathers

California stem cell researcher​/blogger Paul Knoepfler is reporting that he has ruffled some elite feathers in the stem cell community.

In a post last week, the UC Davis scientist said that his heavy coverage of the STAP stem cell flap appears to have offended some. He wrote,
“It seems (the) concept of not talking about bad news is well-entrenched in the stem cell field.... I’ve been informed that I’ve ruffled the feathers of a couple elite VIPs of the stem cell world by covering the STAP stem cell story on my blog and doing the stem cell crowdsourcing experiment. 
“Would they really prefer that we all just skip along merrily singing kumbaya? 
“The reality is that the STAP stem cell situation is a serious threat to the stem cell field. As someone who is a big fan of stem cells and advocates actively for stem cell research, I wasn’t going to turn a blind eye.”

Earlier, Knoepfler also defended his blogging on the subject after stem cell scientist George Daley of Harvard expressed “concern” about the use of social media to discuss the subject. I wrote about that situation on March 7, noting the value of social media as a communications tool.

To get another perspective on the subject, I asked Deborah Blum, the Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of five books, for her thoughts. She replied,
“I like social media as a tool for transparency, Dave. It gets criticized for being overwrought, or witch-hunting in nature. But I didn't see that in Paul's post. This may explain, though, why he contacted me on Twitter about a post I wrote a while back called "The Trouble With Scientists" that is a defense of bloggers and smart scientist bloggers. Think of Rosie Redfield's blog post on the so-called arsenic-based life report that helped show the flaws. Or the blog Retraction Watch, by Ivan Oransky, who's both an MD and a journalist. The kind of thoughtful online discussion that I think you saw in Paul's piece adds to efforts to make research more open and more accessible. And acknowledging its flaws is just as important in the process as praising its successes. 
“And I do NOT believe a scientist should be punished for writing responsibly about issues in research. I think it's praiseworthy.”

Knoepfler has added this note to his ruffled feathers item,
“It’s important to point out here that I don’t think this STAP situation, even if it gets even worse, can derail the positive momentum of our field overall, but it can slow things down. Also, the stem cell field needs public trust. When I am out there communicating with the public about stem cells and answering their questions, sadly they often spontaneously mention 'scandals' and 'controversy.' Many folks seem to associate these with the stem cell field already.”

Our take: Trying to bury dubious matters and hide questionable activities has led to the downfall of many organizations and individuals. If the stem cell field is to prosper, especially in age of lightning communications, its leaders should be forthright, open and transparent, whether the matter involves replication of research or conflicts of interest. As the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis has been famously quoted, 
“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants."


  1. Carlson11:09 AM

    This led me to wonder whatever happened to Hwang, the Korean scientist who's stem cell "breakthrough" was discovered fraudulent. Apparently he's trying to make a comeback:

    CIRM was inundated with press inquiries when the Hwang story broke. We issued a written statement noting that science isn't immune from fraudsters, despite the filters in place to prevent it, nor is any other profession: Enron and WorldComm weren't fatal to the markets; the steroid-consuming guy across the street from CIRM's office didn't kill baseball; The New York Times survived Jayson Blair.

    The "STAP flap" is unquestionably a black eye for the field but the research will go on. There's no value gained by silencing the discussion or dismissing the severity of the offense.

    Better to simply acknowledge that there was a problem, it was discovered, and it was addressed. Will it be the last? Unlikely. We certainly haven't put an end to potential fraud in other fields, either. That's why we still have market regulators, drug tests for athletes, and editors.

    1. Carlson, the author of the Hwang comment, was chief spokesman for the stem cell agency some years ago. His "better to simply acknowledge there was problem" is good advice. Based on decades in the news business, I can confirm that. Whitewashing or denial prolongs the controversy and generally wind up with graver consequences. In the case of the tragic deaths involving Toyota, the company's $1.2 billion fine today and admission that it lied could have been avoided by being straightforward from the beginning. The damage that has resulted by failing to deal with the problem forthrightly and fix it is untold.