Academic Pandora’s box in Singapore well and truly open as more allegations of misconduct surface

Skeletons seem to be tumbling out of the Singapore academic closet thick and fast as one allegation follows hot on the heels of the last. Previous revelations are here, and here.

1. Abnormal Science reports that another whistleblower has appeared and has pointed out image irregularities (image manipulations?) in two more publications, both from  the Department of Pharmacology, National University of Singapore. Abnormal Science.

2. From the Straits Times (h/t as pointed out by an Abnormal Science reader) it is reported that a famous cancer scientist in Singapore is having his work challenged. If Prof. Yoshiaki Ito’s work is found to be flawed then some 200 other publications based on his results would be thrown into doubt.

The Times article is behind a pay wall but Asia News Net  carries the article

A group of Israeli scientists has come forward to challenge work helmed by one of Singapore’s most famous researchers. They claim that research led by Professor Yoshiaki Ito, currently deputy director of the Cancer Science Institute of Singapore at the National University of Singapore (NUS), cannot be supported or reproduced.

Prof Ito, 72, on the other hand, is standing by his work, and says he disagrees completely with their findings, which he believes are due to experimental flaws. ….

 .. Prof Ito’s seminal paper in 2002 declared that a gene called RUNX3 suppresses the growth of cancer cells in the stomach. 

Meanwhile, an NUS spokesman said an inquiry is in progress, in accordance with the university’s research integrity code. Prof Ito’s seminal paper in 2002 declared that a gene called RUNX3 suppresses the growth of cancer cells in the stomach. The breakthrough led to a flurry of research in the field, with nearly 300 papers published on the backbone of his findings to date.

Now, that is being called into question. Nine years on, the scientists from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot city, Israel, have published their own paper in July refuting his findings. ….. Following “an exhaustive analysis”, they concluded in the EMBO Molecular Medicine journal that there is lack of evidence that RUNX3 is active in the gastrointestinal tract tissue as earlier claimed. This, they added, “creates a serious challenge to the published data and undermines the notion that RUNX3 is a tumour suppressor involved in cancer pathogenesis”. Professor Yoram Groner told The Straits Times: “After nine years of work, we realised that to replicate the results in Cell would be akin to producing a scientific miracle.” He said he had come forward as a whistle-blower out of a sense of obligation: “I am doing this openly despite the unpleasant consequences it can bring to myself and my group, because it is my obligation to scientific truthfulness, the scientific community and to the public who are providing tax dollars for research.” … 

 News of the latest clash has sent ripples through the international RUNX research community, which numbers more than 100 scientists. ….. . Said one researcher, a former colleague of Prof Ito: “We must make sure that we conduct any investigations fairly and transparently so that Singapore’s reputation doesn’t take a hit.” 

(ed. I think it is very telling that protecting scientific rigour takes second place to protecting Singapore’s reputation)

Professor Yoshiaki Ito, 72, was one of the first research “whales” to be enticed to Singapore in 2002 to help build up scientific capability here. His ground-breaking cancer research, part of which is now being questioned by some researchers in his field, helped him win one of Singapore’s top scientific honours last year. Prof Ito had already made his name in Japan for being one of the discoverers of the RUNX “family” of genes in 1993, and their role in cancer. His arrival in Singapore with his team of nine researchers from the prestigious Kyoto University triggered talk of a brain drain from his home country. Here, he was a principal investigator at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) until 2008, and he remains an adjunct researcher there. He is currently deputy director of the Cancer Science Institute of Singapore, a Research Centre of Excellence at the National University of Singapore. It had S$256 million (US$202 million) in government and other funding over seven years.Prof Ito is Yong Loo Lin Professor of Medical Oncology at NUS. In Singapore, he built on his earlier findings on RUNX3 and its role in cancer. He is also credited with helping to develop cancer research and the biomedical sciences here. For instance, his work as founding director of the NUS Oncology Research Institute helped to lay the foundation for the Cancer Science Institute. In addition, he has played an important role as one of the programme leaders in the Singapore Gastric Cancer Consortium, a multi-disciplinary group of doctors and scientists awarded a record $25 million in 2007 to improve the lot of stomach cancer patients. For his contributions, he was given the 2010 President’s Science Award last year.

A major scandal would result if Prof. Ito’s work is found to be flawed and if Alirio Melendez’s work is subject to many retractions. But it does seem that something is not quite right with the research atmosphere prevailing at Singapore’s Agency for Science Technology and Research (A*) and the National University of Singapore. Possibly the Singapore Government’s attempts to “buy” themselves a reputation for science and research by enticing half-famous and award winning researchers has some bearing on this. But scientific traditions are not acquired that easily I think. The focus may well have been on awards and research headlines and not really on scientific rigour.

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2 Responses to “Academic Pandora’s box in Singapore well and truly open as more allegations of misconduct surface”

  1. More dodgy papers for National University of Singapore to investigate « The k2p blog Says:

    […] committee has its work cut out with all the questionable papers they need to check out (See here and […]

  2. National University of Singapore clears Ito of misconduct – “honest differences in interpretations” « The k2p blog Says:

    […] Related: Academic Pandora’s box in Singapore well and truly open as more allegations of misconduct surface Share this:StumbleUponDiggTwitterFacebookEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

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