To the Members of the MBSJ
Hello again from Sendai, where the sultry days of summer are starting to wind down. This marks my seventh seasonal message to all of you, and I have quite a bit of catching up to do on the whirlwind of events that has transpired since my last message in late April.
Let me start by mentioning the University of Tokyo's August 1 release of the initial report on its investigation into allegations of scientific misconduct concerning certain studies in molecular biology (http://www.u-tokyo.ac.jp/public/public01_260801_j.html). According to the report, the investigating panel found that scientific improprieties had been committed by the four researchers involved, including Dr. Shigeaki Kato, a former member of our board of directors. Given that Dr. Kato had been a part of our awareness-raising activities for preventing ethical violations in research, we earnestly responded to the allegations of scientific misconduct by his team. In particular, we sent two letters, one in November 2012 and another in the following August, to the University of Tokyo to request that they promptly investigate the accusations, and we consider their recent initial decision to be a big step forward in resolving this matter. I have the utmost respect for everyone involved in the herculean task of scrutinizing as many as 165 papers and conducting the review needed for their decision. At the same time, however, I am concerned by the inordinate amount of time that has passed since the earliest allegations of improprieties surfaced in January 2012—first came the preliminary investigation at Dr. Kato's lab, followed by the launch of a full-scale inquiry in September 2013, the release of an interim report in the following December, and then the recent initial decision made based on that report. The length of time taken suggests that there still are many problems that need to be tackled regarding how we as members of the scientific community deal with issues of research misconduct.
On August 5, just a few days after the University of Tokyo announced its findings, we learned of the heartrending news that one of our members, Dr. Yoshiki Sasai, had taken his life. On behalf of the MBSJ, I extend our deepest sympathies to his family, friends, and colleagues. I am certain that Dr. Sasai's passing came as a tremendous shock to everyone working at the Center for Developmental Biology, but I urge all of them to be strong and keep working their hardest to further advance first-rate science. Amidst this sad turn of events, all sorts of speculation about Dr. Sasai's motives is being bandied about in cyberspace, including the accusation that he was driven to his choice by pressure from the MBSJ. I would like to say here that such criticism is completely unwarranted, as the statements and requests we issued on our website regarding the STAP cell research was not specifically targeted at any individual. Moreover, the MBSJ was in no way involved with the television special on this matter that was aired in late July.
Turning to our own news, the MBSJ recently elected new directors to steer the society in the 19th term that will begin next year. With the growth of deeper bonds between science and society, the MBSJ now faces an unprecedentedly diverse spectrum of challenges, so I will do my best to help ease the transition to the new leadership.
Speaking of the relationship between science and society, I would like to share with you a recent experience of mine in this regard.
This past July, I squeezed in a visit to London between two international scientific conferences, providing myself with the opportunity to join in a Royal Society event for my first time ever. To be specific, Prof. Veronica van Heyningen, a Royal Society Fellow, invited me to attend a soiree held in conjunction with the Summer Science Exhibition that the society hosts every July. The Royal Society is the pinnacle of the United Kingdom's scientific academies, whose Japanese counterpart would be the Japan Academy, and its Fellows are conferred a medal of order from the Queen. The soiree was put on at the Burlington House, a 17th century building located on Piccadilly in the heart of London. I found the interior to be adorned with numerous portrait photos and paintings of generations of distinguished past members—perhaps a visual manifestation of the Royal Society's pride in having blazed the path for modern science. As I gazed upon the different faces, I felt a wave of nostalgia when my eyes fell on a portrait of Dr. Anne McLaren with a laboratory mouse. Dr. McLaren was jointly awarded the Japan Prize for her contributions in mammalian embryo manipulation, and her work helped to build the foundation on which scientists such as Gail Martin and Martin Evans established the field of embryonic stem cell research. And, I also came across a portrait of another prominent female scientist, Dr. Dorothy Hodgkin, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for making advances in X-ray crystallography.
The Summer Science Exhibition is a public-oriented science event that has been hosted by the Royal Society's President for every year since 1769 (!), the year after the society was founded. If you would like to find out more about it, check out their visually stunning website (http://sse.royalsociety.org/2014). I think that one would have to look very hard to find a similar event outside the UK that can trace its roots back to the 18th century. Inside Burlington House I was charmed to see an old painting of tuxedoed gentlemen and finely dressed ladies curiously inspecting displays at a past exhibition, and I took note that such sensibilities remain alive today at the black-tie soiree, which Veronica referred to as a “very British” event. To me, the party, styled as a seated buffet, had the festive air of class reunion for the Fellows in attendance. And, as one amusing touch that befitted a gathering of scientists, fresh strawberry cream was served in a plastic container resembling a test tube.
It is no easy task to communicate the significance and achievements of science to the public, and hence it is very important for that communication to be carried out by not only scientists, but also people such as school teachers and the science writers who compose books and articles for publication in various media. With science becoming more and more compartmentalized and esoteric, it is almost backbreaking work to make the latest discoveries understandable to children—and to many adult members of the general public as well. Every time I need to prepare a press release on some new discovery, I struggle to strike the right balance between accuracy and comprehensibility.
It takes day-to-day effort to expand the “fan base” or “cheering squad” for science. Most scientific research is made possible by government grants that originate from taxpayers' pockets, a fact that we scientists should give more thought to on a daily basis. At first glance, public outreach activities may not seem to be connected with the advancement of science, but by making them an integral part of our everyday mission, we can combat pseudoscience, shape the way research funds are allocated, and achieve other positive results.
On a final note, the deadline for abstract submission to this year's annual meeting in Yokohama passed at the beginning of this month. This year, we are holding the conference earlier than usual, in late November. The meeting's president, Dr. Shigeo Koyasu, says that he wants to make it an excellent forum for profound discussion of science, so let's all get together in Yokohama for this wonderful opportunity!
18th President of the MBSJ
Professor, Division of Developmental Neuroscience, Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine