daniel buenoThe Japanese government has announced the establishment of a special department to promote good practices at research institutions and to investigate accusations of improper conduct, according to the U.S. news site Global Post. The office will be attached to Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology. One of its missions will be to direct universities to include in their curricula disciplines that address ethics in science. The office will also implement new guidelines on irregularities in scientific activities. The ministry needs to hire staff to get the office up and running, and this depends on the approval of a heftier ministerial budget for next year.
The government has also promised to release a manual on research integrity by the end of next year, aimed at scientists who receive public funds. The handbook is being developed by Japan’s chief research funding agencies in partnership with the Science Council of Japan, an organization with ties to the country’s scientific community. The idea is that it will serve as a standard for research institutions when drawing up their own manuals or training programs. According to Makoto Asashima, executive director of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), which is an organization involved in putting together the document, the manual will cover such issues as the proper use of research funds, the management of data and notes from experiments, and the responsibilities of the scientists who are co-authors of scientific papers. “We’re trying to move researchers toward the ‘responsible conduct’ end of the scale,” Asashima told the journal Science.
Asashima denies that the initiative is a direct government response to the episode of misconduct involving scientists at RIKEN, one of Japan’s leading research institutes. According to Asashima, the measures are aimed at solving a bigger problem, related to the lack of training in research integrity in Japan. The case exposed the weak points of a stem-cell study. In July 2014, the journal Nature retracted two papers on a stem-cell production technique, signed by Haruko Obokata, a young researcher at RIKEN. The articles described a technique that promised to simplify stem-cell production, but the method lost credibility when other scientists could not replicate it. An investigation by the institute found that Obokata had committed plagiarism and fabricated data in both papers. In August, the case gained even more dramatic overtones when biologist Yoshiki Sasai, director of the institute’s laboratory of organogenesis and neurogenesis, committed suicide. He had been Obokata’s advisor and co-author of the retracted articles.