Monday, February 22, 2016

Inside STAP: New Yorker's Long Look at the Flap and its Implications

Over the weekend, the New Yorker published online a bang-up and thorough account of the STAP stem cell scandal of 2014. which stretched across the Pacific from Japan to Boston.

The subhead on the story said,
“Rivalries, intrigue, and fraud in the world of stem-cell research”
The piece was authored by Dana Goodyear, a writer for the New Yorker who also teaches writing at the University of Southern California.

UC Davis stem cell researcher Paul Knoepfler, who carried on his blog early and lengthy pieces on the STAP flap, today said of the article:
“It’s a long, fascinating look inside of STAP, the tangled and ultimately tragic scientific implosion that created and then brought down two Nature papers and some careers.”
Goodyear’s article brought out much fresh material, including a more detailed look at the history of the STAP research than has been previously published. The piece also contained probably enough scientific detail to satisfy the experts in the field.

But Goodyear also included thoughts on the stem field in general, issues related to scientific journals, hyper-competitiveness among researchers, replication of research and more. Here are a couple of excerpts from the article, which we highly recommend:

“The promises of stem-cell research lie at the core of human desires—to understand our origins and to cheat death—and there is a great deal of money and prestige at stake. It is a ruthlessly competitive field, susceptible to fantasy and correspondingly sensitive to bunglers. Human embryonic stem cells were first cultured in 1998; nearly twenty years later, basic assumptions about cell behavior are still routinely overturned. Andrew McMahon, a top researcher at the Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research, at the University of Southern California, told me, “It’s not unusual to see something and not be able to explain it.” In reporting results, researchers must often craft a narrative to make sense of mysterious phenomena. What to ignore and what to privilege—that discernment can be the difference between brilliance and quackery, and between fame and obscurity.”

On the difficulties in replicating research findings:
“Many people believe this is partly the fault of the scientific journals. Along with the influential role that Nature has in shaping the trajectories of ideas, technologies, and careers, it is essentially a commercial enterprise. The editors like big stories, and for the right ones they take risks. Some observers complain that incentives to publish have a distorting effect, causing scientists to oversell data; a cutthroat culture sometimes leads researchers to publish intentionally incomplete or vague protocols. The perceived conflict between good science and prestige has become so pointed that, two years ago, Randy Schekman, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist, announced in the Guardian that he would no longer publish in Nature, Cell, or Science, which, he wrote, ‘aggressively curate their brands, in ways more conducive to selling subscriptions than to stimulating the most important research.’”
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