Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Korean Lesson: More Sunshine Needed in California

"I am very sorry that I have to tell the public words that are too shameful and horrible." -- Hwang Woo-Suk

"It won't be the first time that a scientist has lied to journalists...." -- Chris Shaw, professor of Neurology at Kings College London

"Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." -- Louis Brandeis

Can the California stem cell agency learn something from the South Korean cash-for-eggs affair?

The answer is a resounding yes. A few days ago, The Sacamento Bee noted that the whole egg extraction business is a dicey waypoint in the "minefield" of stem cell research. The Bee commended the agency's plans to look more deeply into the issue.

But the story about the Korean researcher and the milieu in which he operates has additional implications. Some involve different cultures – not only Korean and US but those of other societies. The case also involves jingoistic ambitions – here and elsewhere – and economic aspirations.

But we are going to focus on another aspect of the affair – the need for maximum disclosure and transparency on the part of the California stem cell agency. Its unique structure contains built-in conflicts of interest with little direct oversight from any other California governmental entity. "Trust us" says CIRM.

The South Korean stem cell story, however, makes clear what we all know; temptations are great on the cutting edge of science. Prestige, honors and potentially billions of dollars are at stake. Even the high priests of science are not immune from infection.

CIRM's own peculiar governmental DNA is likely to make it more susceptible to abuse. The best vaccine, as Justice Brandeis suggests, is a good dose of sunshine. Open the doors more widely. Do a better job of making records available on the Internet. Be more straightforward about financial affairs. Require more disclosure of financial interests on the part of scientists, contractors and others associated with the agency.

Obviously, transparency is not going to prevent all wrong-doing. The truly crooked are less likely to be deterred. Then there are the well-intentioned, presumably such as the South Koreans who paid cash for human eggs. They will find excuses for what they are doing.

Hwang is the global superstar of stem cells. He will survive this scandal. But the California stem cell agency would be hard-pressed to come through a similar affair.

CIRM should resist its natural, insular tendencies. If its dealings are truly open and transparent, those who are tempted by money or ambition will find it more difficult to operate. The public will have an opportunity to examine the agency's affairs. And when the inevitable scandal – small or large – surfaces, CIRM can say it has done all it could to prevent wrongdoing.

The quotes from Hwang and Shaw at the beginning of this post are from an article by Stephen Pincock in The Scientist.

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