Message from the President (Early Summer 2014)

portrait of Prof. Noriko Osumi

To the Members of the MBSJ

Science as Procedure

I had wanted to write this season's message a little earlier, at least when the cherry trees were still in bloom, but circumstances prevented me from doing so—namely, the recent commotion over research claims regarding stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) cells, which swept over both the global life sciences community and the general public in Japan.

I have already shared my personal views of this matter on my blog, and I issued two statements as president on March 3 and 11 to express the MBSJ's official position. Considering that the lead author of the two controversial papers published in Nature is not a member of the MBSJ, I recognized that it would be an unprecedented move to release president's statements focusing on issues surrounding specific papers by a nonmember, but, based on consultation with our Research Ethics Committee and fellow MBSJ executives, I decided that the statements were warranted by the high level of public interest in the recent turn of events.

The controversy has already ceased to be an issue for just the scientific community, given the extensive public exposure it has received—the news conference held by the lead researcher was streamed online and was featured as a nearly 20-minute top story on broadcaster NHK's 7 p.m. news program. And, who would have imagined that a scientist's name would appear in the weekly tabloids for week after week? If anything, all this coverage has reminded me of just how difficult it is to communicate information about events in the world of science to the general public.

Science is but one of the ways that humankind acquires knowledge, but it has a clearly defined procedure for telling others about the discoveries that one makes. Simply exclaiming “Eureka!” “I've got it!” or “I believe this is true!” is not enough to establish that we have made a real discovery. In the case of research aimed at demonstrating a certain hypothesis, we must find supporting evidence, accurately record that data, and confirm the reproducibility of our discovery (see footnote). If reproducibility is not achieved, then we may need to revise our hypothesis. After we have confirmed reproducibility with evidence solid enough to present to other scientists, we then share it with them for review. If necessary, we may be asked to provide supplementary data or data that are more precise. If any of the steps in this procedure are faulty or lacking, then what we have cannot be presented as science. Without the spirit of healthy critical thinking, science is not science. Indeed, the annual meetings and other conferences organized by scientific societies are intended to be forums for such critical discussion.

There is more to this procedure—after our research is published in a scholarly journal, its reproducibility will be tested by many of our peers, and it is only after the completion of this step that our findings will be accepted by the scientific community. The discovery of postnatal neurogenesis in the rat brain by Joseph Altman and his colleagues in the early 1960s was subsequently subjected to scrutiny for half a century, leading to discovery of the same phenomenon in primates, as well as its association with cognitive function and emotional behavior. Toward the end of the 1990s, research on volunteer cancer patients revealed that new neurons are formed in the adult human brain, and just this past year a study based on a groundbreaking technique using 14C found that neurogenesis also occurs in the brains of healthy adult humans as well. In 2012, half a century after publishing his seminal paper, Dr. Altman was awarded the International Prize for Biology in recognition of his contribution as the first discoverer of postnatal neurogenesis.

Over the past ten years or so, scientists have become more cognizant of the importance of public outreach and have accordingly stepped up their efforts to link their research results with the communication of science news. This can be seen in press releases on the publication of research, which now often feature titles that explicitly state expectations for how a particular discovery will be of benefit. Although scientists and the PR coordinators of research institutions use these catchphrase-like titles under the premise that the findings are still in the process of being confirmed, the members of the general public who view or read the mass media coverage all too often assume that publication of a paper means that the conclusions have been finalized—a tendency that I feel was palpably demonstrated by the recent STAP commotion.

I will lead the MBSJ in formulating a response to this issue, taking into consideration the outcomes of last year's MBSJ Administrative Board Forum and the STAP research affair. The Science Council of Japan published a revised version of its Code of Conduct for Scientists last January 25. Also, MEXT's special committee on scientific misconduct has released (Japanese only) that describes the various efforts being made by research institutions, organizations that allocate research funds, scientific societies, and other scientific organizations. (Japanese only), with cooperation from the CITI Program in the US, offers an e-learning system for learning about research ethics that includes instruction on issues surrounding scientific misconduct and authorship. This course is mandatory for all scientists involved in Japan Science and Technology Agency projects, and has been incorporated into the curriculum of educational institutions such as the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University. As a scientific society, it is our duty to closely examine what courses of action are realistic and significantly effective.

Misconduct in research is a vital concern for each and every member of the scientific community. It is not a problem that occurs just because of the inexperience of young researchers; it can also result from insufficient guidance by senior scientists, group leaders, and lab directors. Over the long run, making earnest efforts to prevent scientific misconduct is the wiser strategy to take, compared with the more costly and time-consuming approach of dealing with misconduct only after it happens.

Lastly, I have a bit of happy news to share with you—we received as many as 259 entries for our contest to create a mascot character for the MBSJ! The selection will be made based on (Japanese only) by members (deadline: 5 p.m. on May 9, Japan time). We plan to create a lineup of giveaways featuring the selected character for distribution at MBSJ events for high schools students and so forth, so stay tuned!

Speaking of online voting, we will hold a poll for our biennial appointment of directors. Since the directors are responsible for overseeing the MBSJ's operations and steering its course, the selection process represents an opportunity for members to have their voices heard. Voting will be held online from June 23 to July 11, so be sure to cast your ballot!

Note: In some fields of science, reproducibility can be very hard to verify. For example, it is a daunting, if not impossible, challenge to test hypotheses on questions such as how a certain organism changed during the course of evolution. Also, as advances are made in the genomic sequencing of individuals, I think it will be extremely difficult to achieve reproducibility in this field even under the same exact conditions, given that 3 million base pair differences exist between the genomes of any two humans and given how epigenome modification is affected by experience and environment. It will be very interesting to see how the life sciences deal with these sorts of “irreproducible sciences.”

April 2014

Noriko Osumi
18th President of the MBSJ
Professor, Division of Developmental Neuroscience, Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine