January 15, 2021

The Niche

Trusted stem cell blog & resources

STAP coverage ruffles some ‘elite’ stem cell feathers

Will a few of the “elite” of the research world be on the wrong side of history when it comes to STAP cells?

Haruko Obokata
Obokata presenting STAP in happier time.

It seems some don’t want people talking about just how bad the STAP situation might be. Bad news may travel fast as the expression goes, but the people who talk about it may put themselves at risk from the royalty.

Apparently this has been going on for thousands of years.

No one loves the messenger who brings bad news” — Antigone, Sophocles, 442 BC

Wikipedia even has an entire page (from which I took the above quote from the tragedy Antigone) dedicated to this “shoot the messenger” concept and has the passage quoted below that seems particularly applicable today to the stem cell field dealing with the STAP stem cell issue.

Plutarch‘s Lives has this line: “The first messenger that gave notice of Lucullus‘s coming was so far from pleasing Tigranes that he had his head cut off for his pains; and no man daring to bring further information, without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him…”‘

It seems this concept of not talking about bad news is well-entrenched in the stem cell field too. 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.

On the positive side, many top stem cell scholars have told me directly that they are very supportive of my stem cell advocacy efforts and blogging on this current situation. More broadly and generally stem cell researchers and others who have provided feedback on the STAP coverage on this blog have been positive. That’s not to say I haven’t gotten some hate. I have.

I believe that the STAP cell situation is a tragedy and frankly blogging about it has been entirely unpleasant for me….kind of like a 6-week long root canal at the dentist.

The collective wisdom of the stem cell field today (again with only minor exceptions) is that STAP is a situation that must be dealt with openly as much as that is painful.

What’s at stake? The reputation of the whole stem cell field and its credibility with the public.

Update: 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.

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