The atmosphere of disappointment and shock in Korea is almost palpable. "Psychological depression," "Could It Be Possible?" and "Bewilderment" are just some of the headlines splashed across the nation's front pages. The reason for the dismay? On Dec. 15, a member of cloning pioneer Hwang Woo Suk's team alleged that the Korean scientist had fabricated evidence for a landmark discovery. If the allegations are true, "you can call this a day of national humiliation for Korean science," says Lee Wang Je, a top researcher at Seoul National University Hospital.
Six months ago, Hwang and his team at Seoul National University rocketed to scientific stardom worldwide with an announcement that he had successfully grown stem cells that matched a patient's DNA. That achievement -- chronicled in the journal Science in May -- was seen as a giant step toward treating ailments such as severed spinal cords by using a patient's own regenerated tissue. This followed Hwang's claim last year that he had cloned a human cell by inserting the nucleus of an adult cell into a human egg to make embryonic cells. Then in August, Hwang's team announced another breakthrough: the world's first cloned dog, which they called Snuppy.
Now those achievements are being questioned. Seoul National University, where Hwang works, has appointed a nine-member commission to probe allegations by Roh Sung Il, one of 25 co-authors of the Science paper, that at least 9 of the 11 stem-cell lines Hwang claimed to have cultivated weren't real. "I can't help but feel miserable," he told reporters.
"CRITICAL ERRORS." Hwang is fighting back. On Dec. 16, he told reporters that he indeed cultivated 11 stem-cell lines from patients. Problems, he said, arose when some of them were destroyed after being contaminated by fungus.
"It is certain [our team] produced tailor-made stem cells," he said at a news conference near his lab. Hwang said he would request a criminal investigation into suspicions that his cloned stem cells had been replaced with other cells. But he also admitted to "critical errors" in presenting photos and other evidence to Science and said he would withdraw the paper from the journal.
Whatever the outcome, both Hwang's credibility and Korea's role as a front-runner in cloning research have already been damaged. Roh isn't the only one who has questioned Hwang's integrity. Last month, U.S. stem-cell expert Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh distanced himself from Hwang following the discovery that, contrary to published statements, two junior women researchers donated eggs for Hwang's cloning experiment -- something frowned on by the scientific community due to the possibility of coercion. Two weeks later, Hwang apologized for not giving full details about the source of the eggs he used.
AUTHORITARIAN CULTURE. The whole affair highlights continuing problems with transparency and accountability in Korea. Few, if any, of the co-authors apparently verified the evidence claimed in the May paper. A member of Hwang's team, asking not to be identified, told Korea's MBC TV -- which has been a leader in investigating the story -- that the authoritarian culture and rigid academic hierarchy in Korea's scientific community doesn't tolerate questions of a project leader's decisions. In fact, most of the co-authors told MBC that they had never seen stem cells cultivated by Hwang, but took part in isolated experiments.
Such rigid management style also discourages insiders from challenging irregularities. Some are comparing Hwang's woes to those of disgraced tycoon Kim Woo Choong, who cooked the books as he built a small textile-trading house called Daewoo into Korea's second-largest conglomerate before collapsing under a mountain of debt.
"Lack of trust and integrity, authoritarian culture, and appeals to blind nationalism are problems not limited to the corporate sector," laments economist Kim Sang Jo at Hansung University in Seoul. "In an organization where whistleblowers are treated as traitors or betrayers, you simply can't stand up against abuse unless you are prepared to risk your whole career," says Kim.
EGG PLEDGES. This, coupled with appeals to nationalism, almost killed MBC's pursuit of the matter. MBC launched its reporting on Hwang after getting a tip from a former member of the research team. After its first report on the source of human eggs for Hwang's experiments, a dozen companies pulled their ads from the network.
And with the government hailing Hwang as a national hero and leader of a project that could serve as a key engine of economic growth, tens of thousands of protesters demonstrated outside MBC's studios, made angry telephone calls to the company switchboard, and posted bruising comments online. More than 1,000 Korean women also pledged to donate eggs for Hwang's research after the scandal over the source of the eggs broke.
Yet some encouraging signs indicate that Korea could be strengthened by the affair. Even as many Koreans rallied behind Hwang, young scientists thronged to another Web site to analyze and verify Hwang's work. In recent days the Korean-language site -- used mostly by the country's PhD candidates -- has attracted hundreds of thousands of hits. Some have pointed out what they said were traces of manipulation in photo images of stem cells and DNA graphs in the Science paper. "Korea is still in the process of maturing, and it will have to endure growing pains," says Lee Dong Gull, a former presidential economic adviser.
Just as the downfall of Daewoo and its leader Kim hastened change at Korea's mighty conglomerates, the shockwaves emanating from the stem-cell scandal may spur the country's scientific community to more closely examine its methods and embark on needed reforms.