The Sciences

There's A Place For Heroic Gambles In Science

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticJul 16, 2014 8:48 PM


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Over at Paul Knoepfler's excellent Stem Cell Blog, commenter Robert Geller (@rjgeller) offers some remarkable data about the hiring of a disgraced scientist. Geller queries why Haruko Obokata, the biologist at the center of the "STAP" stem cell scandal, was ever given her job. Obokata is a Research Unit Leader (RUL) at Japan's national Riken Center for Developmental Biology (CDB). It was after being appointed to this prestigious post that she completed and published her discovery of "STAP cells" - supposedly a new kind of way of making stem cells. Her data turned out to be serious flawed and Obokata's two papers on STAP were retracted in Nature earlier this month. But should she have been hired in the first place? Geller compares Obokata's CV against those of five unnamed "researchers in Japan in the same general field as Dr. Obokata" (and with similar ages), and also against a sixth individual, a biologist who was given the job of Research Unit Leader at the Riken CDB at the same time as Obokata. Here's the data, with Obokata in red:

Geller says (my emphasis) that

Dr. Obokata had both the lowest number of total citations and least impactful "hit" [i.e. single most-cited paper] of any of the seven researchers. This suggests that, in the absence of some specific non-quantitative reason for rejecting the ranking implied by the citation data, Dr. Obokata should not have been hired by Riken. This considers only researchers inside Japan and it seems highly likely that there would have also been more highly qualified candidates [for the RUL post] than Dr. Obokata from outside Japan...

In a nutshell, Obokata's 'metrics' are poor. Compared to her peers she has not published many highly-cited papers. So, Geller asks, why was she, and not someone better qualified, given the extremely prestigious Riken RUL post? Various reports sketch out a plausible story of what happened here. The story is that Obokata was head-hunted on the personal initiative of the CDB's management, who wanted Obokata on their staff, so that their institute could claim credit for STAP. Their hope, we're told, was that STAP would allow Riken to outshine their rival, Nobel Laureate biologist Shinya Yamanaka and his induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Had STAP cells been real, they would have made iPSCs obsolete. So, by this account, Obokata was hired, not on the strength of her past published work (as STAP was still unpublished at that stage), but on the strength of her current vision and her future potential. Rather than citations and metrics, she was judged by her ideas. Which is... great. That's how it should be. This kind of thing ought to happen more often. Metrics can't measure everything, and there's a place in science for heroic leaps into the unknown. So I don't think the hiring of Obokata should be criticized - not as such. It wasn't itself a mistake, rather it was based on a mistake, namely the idea that Obokata and her STAP were about to revolutionize biology. This was an error, a scientific blunder on a grand scale. But given that mistaken theory, hiring Obokata was a brave move, a high-stakes scientific gamble. Had it paid off, whoever made the decision would have been seen as a visionary, and the status of the CDB would have been enormously enhanced. It would be a shame if the hiring of Obokata comes to be seen as a case in point that scientific appointments should be based on metrics. Rather, the lesson here is that even the most attractive ideas require critical evaluation.

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