Obokata questioned by police over STAP cell fiasco

Haruko Obokata
Obokata presenting STAP in happier time

Haruko Obokata was reportedly questioned by police in Japan today.

The questioning relates to the STAP cell scandal that led to the retraction of two Nature papers.

As first author of the papers, Obokata and other authors had reported that they could make IPSC-like cells simply via acid or other stress treatment. However, it is now widely believed that the supposed STAP cells were in actuality ES cells (or ES cells mixed with other cell types), and there has been some question over whether the ES cells were technically stolen by someone. Japan times reports:

“She was questioned in response to a complaint filed by another former Riken researcher in January last year, although Riken itself has not reported any crime, the police said…The complainant claimed someone had stolen embryonic stem cells from the laboratory in Kobe in or after April 2011, when Obokata was still employed by Riken.”

Obokata has been in the news recently because she just published a book telling her side of STAP and shifting the blame onto others with claims such as that she was framed. It’s unclear if the police would continue with this potential case, although it sounds like there is at least some circumstantial evidence that something happened:

“A container labeled “ES cells” was found in Obokata’s laboratory during the investigation, but Obokata denied mixing them, intentionally or unintentionally, with the specimens used in her research.”

I asked a scientist in Japan about this development and they had this to say:

“I suppose by publishing her book and profiting massively from  research misconduct she forced the cops’ hand a bit. I still doubt they’ll prosecute, but at least they have to go through the motions of investigating…”

I’ve been critical of the whole STAP affair in the past, but even so the idea of scientists being questioned by police is unsettling.

1 thought on “Obokata questioned by police over STAP cell fiasco”

  1. 1. Generally speaking, research misconduct often involves crimes like misuse of public funds. As documented by sites like Retraction Watch, some cases of research misconduct in several countries have led to jail sentences. So police investigations in the wake of institutional findings of guilt in research misconduct cases are a reminder of the seriousness of the offense, but seems inevitable in at least some cases.

    2. In the case of Japan, the police feed information to the media through a “press club.” So the fact that the questioning of Obokata by the police (nominally purely voluntary cooperation with the investigation) was reported by the media is presumably because the police wanted it to be reported. (The police could have questioned her without publicizing the fact.)

    2A. Officially, the questioning of Obokata (over a year after the criminal complaint was filed) has no connection whatsoever with her having just published a best-selling book last month. The timing is officially purely coincidental. But obviously the publication of the book put the case back on the front burner and it’s reasonable to infer that the police felt obligated to show they were doing something.

    3. The 64 Billion Yen question is whether there will be an arrest and/or indictment and/or conviction (white collar crime suspects are sometimes indicted without being arrested in Japan, especially in cases where they admit their guilt and/or the penalty is likely to be only a fine or suspended sentence). All we can do is wait and see. My personal guess is no. After all, the accusation involves a charge that a Riken researcher (Obokata, at the time the experiments were conducted) used property belonging to Riken (the ES cells) without proper authorization. IANAL, but it seems that it would be hard to establish that as a criminal theft in a court of law. Not to mention the great difficulty in establishing the identity of the person who actually used the ES cells without proper authorization, if indeed that actually can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to have happened.

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