October 29, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Reflecting on Sasai tragedy, STAP, & flawed field of science

Today has been a dark day of mourning for science following the death by suicide of Dr. Yoshiki Sasai. I did not know Dr. Sasai personally, but was very impressed with his work. His suicide leaves me feeling very sad and it seems like an appropriate time for reflection. (update I did a post on suicides by scientists more generally: Scientists and suicide)

It’s not clear why he took his own life, but it is reasonable to surmise that aspects of the STAP cell mess had a prominent role.

After the STAP paper situation went wild in the media in Japan and became a political hot potato there, it seemed that Sasai was being scapegoated. Even though others were relatively far more responsible for the STAP troubles than he seemed to be, he shouldered more of the burden. Some of that burden he probably took on himself because of his love for the RIKEN CDB.

Sasai should be remembered for his entire career’s exceptional work and not for STAP. If he made missteps on STAP, my impression was that it was at least in part due to being too trusting and then wanting to go after the truly big, transformative discovery that STAP seemed to be. As to the latter, in today’s world of science everybody is supposed to be going after transformative discoveries, right? Otherwise you won’t be funded. It’s not an excuse for the STAP travails, but a relevant reality faced by all scientists.

How much do you trust and how fast do you go with projects and papers? How much risk do you take?

While STAP was supposed to be all about cells under various kinds of intense pressure and stress subsequently reacting by turning into stem cells, perhaps the real and now tragic story of STAP is instead all about the reactions of scientists under painfully intense pressure and stress. That’s in a way a mirror of the larger flawed, acid bath world of science today that we all share. In a sense we are all in that same boat in one way or another. What can we do to make the situation better?

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