Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Kennedy boy is in the soup again—UPDATED

Look, they said it was real kimchi—Don Kennedy is in trouble again and this time it isn’t his fault. Kennedy is editor of Science magazine, about as prestigious a position as you can have in science. He came to the job after screwing up as president of Stanford and has done, by all accounts, a good job as head of America's most prestigious science publication. Now, it appears, he has been the victim of science fraud and he is in the spotlight again.

Background: I was science writer at Stanford when he was president, and I wrote the initial stories that began Stanford’s indirect cost scandal that eventually cost Kennedy his job. In brief, the university was charging everything from light bulbs to yachts and commodes to the government to do research, a practice that made doing research at Stanford so expensive that scientists started losing grants and the faculty was in an uproar. The practice began under Kennedy and when it exploded into the public—thanks to a slightly wacky whistle blower —Kennedy mishandled it. He never got control of the situation so we were getting surprised every day. He also made the mistake of forgetting you hire lawyers to give advice, not make decisions. Nonetheless, he was fired and to some extent, I’m told, he blames me partially. There goes my freelancing opportunities at Science.

Now for the present contretemps. The world has been agog at the exploits of a Korean veterinarian, Hwang Woo Suk, who claimed major advances in stem cell research and cloning. His work was published in Science. Hwang has become a national hero in Korea. In recent weeks, there have been questions about the ethics of his work and veracity of his claims. One colleague, Roh Sung Il, says Hwang faked photos in a claim that he created stem cells from 11 patients for an article in Science (an article I reported on this blog too, by the way). The stress has put Hwang in the hospital and it is apparently going to get worse. Things really fell apart when a coauthor of the Science paper, Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, an accomplished and well-respected researcher, asked Science to take his name off the paper. Schatten was listed last, the place reserved for the most important scientist. Schatten said he now had substantial doubts about the paper’s accuracy,” which is interesting since he signed off on it. Science refused because the paper had not been withdrawn, putting Kennedy on the spot. See Connie Holden's piece in Science here.

Today I got a call from a reporter at the New York Times who heard I had some bumpy experiences with Kennedy and the question was, did I know anything about Kennedy that could let me predict he would get into a jam at Science. The answer was no. I don’t think he did anything wrong. He got an important paper that passed peer review and was coauthored by an established scientist of unquestioned repute. What the hell was he supposed to do with it? Nature also accepted an article from Hwang on cloning a dog and no one has asked if there was anything in that editor’s past that would warn of a problem. The referees on the Science paper asked for additional tests, which may have led to uncovering the problems. If Hwang did fake the research the worst that can be said is that the system worked. He got caught.

UPDATE—A panel at Hwang's university, Seoul National, has concluded that Hwang faked at least nine of the 11 stem cell lines he claimed to have produced and Hwang resigned. His downfall is particularly said because he had become a national hero in Korea, a Korean who was leading the field in science, attaining rock star fame in the country. "I sincerely apologize to the people for creating a shock and disappointment," he said. [AP photo above]

It wasn’t Kennedy’s fault that the stories were published. The papers will undoubtedly be withdrawn.

1 comment:

Daro said...

I'm heftily impressed with the way you wrote this piece. Like a scientist. It's obvious there's a "history" between Kennedy and you but you laid that out and spurned the chance for a cheap, savage twist of the knife at the end... something like "I dunno, but wherever this guy goes, there seems to be a whiff in the air" or something of that ilk... while still bringing the whole matter up, in the first place, of course! I couldn't think of 5 people I've met who'd resist an "office politics" goldmine like that; seeing an adversary in somewhat dire straits.