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HOME  > Past issues  > 2014 July 9 - 15  > Results-oriented research climate causes STAP cell scandal
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2014 July 9 - 15 [LABOR]

Results-oriented research climate causes STAP cell scandal

July 13 & 14, 2014
Obokata Haruko of the RIKEN institute used manipulated graphics and images in research articles on STAP cells, creating a major scandal. Her papers were revoked five months after their release. Trust in scientific research is now questioned in Japan.

Enoki Eisuke, representative of an NPO called Science Support Association (SSA), sees the present academic research environment as a cause of that scandal.

Enoki said that researchers in recent years have to obtain external funds because of government cuts in subsidies to universities and research institutes.

He pointed out that these funds, however, concentrate on priority areas in a top-down decision-making process, and therefore researchers tend to pursue breakthrough results in a highly competitive environment.

Overproduction of PhDs due to the government policy has brought about a sharp rise in unstable research jobs, leading to an atmosphere which pays little attention to postgraduate education, said Enoki.

In fact, more than 80% of researchers at the RIKEN institute are under fixed-term contracts. Facing competition for full-time posts and research funds, they are expected to produce results in a limited time period.

In a questionnaire survey of 1,069 researchers at national research and testing institutes in various fields, many researchers responded that behind the STAP scandal are pressures for immediate achievements; inadequacy of education of young researchers in graduate schools and institutes; and a lack of communication among researchers.

The same survey shows that many respondents think that research budget allocations in favor of specific areas and too much results-oriented tendencies are having a negative influence on the research environment.

One researcher in the questionnaire wrote, “Most studies are doomed to fail, so it’s meaningless to discuss efficiency only.” Another wrote, “It is a big mistake to believe that conducting research under unstable employment conditions will produce better results.”

An Akahata editorial on July 14 states that in order to prevent misconduct in research, it is necessary to establish research ethics; improve the structure to support researchers; review the existing results-first policy; and eliminate excessive competition.

The editorial added that an expansion of fund allocations to universities and stable research environments are important factors to ensure a sound development of research.
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