The Obokata Hype

Setsuko Kamiya 神谷説子

The ongoing STAP cell controversy revealed many alarming issues surrounding the Japanese academic community. After a couple of months since the fabrication and falsification in the research papers in question that ran in Nature came to light, constructive discussions on the need for enhancing professional ethics and prevention of scientific frauds are finally taking place. Recalling the media circus over the so-called “STAPgate”, though, it’s probably the Apr. 9 press conference of state-backed Riken researcher Haruko Obokata that will be remembered as the highlight of this scandal. The media event at an Osaka hotel attracted hundreds of reporters and camera crews as if a renowned actress was there to announce the end of her career. Part of the 150-minute event was televised, and the 30-year-old made the front page of newspapers and tabloids the following day.

Indeed, the now-disputed finding by Obokata’s team of researchers was initially regarded as a groundbreaking discovery that may have potential to push the progress of reproductive medicine. As allegations of grave misconduct surfaced, the media had every reason to be enthusiastic and follow up on the developments. But considering the modest treatment that science-related news generally receives, the media frenzy over STAPgate clearly have gone too far.

Had this been the case if Obokata was a young male researcher? I doubt it. Obokata is no actress but she’s got the charm, and Riken also knew how to present her to receive a good amount of coverage. And the media didn’t think twice and jumped on it. Things just kept escalating as misconducts were spotted.

In late January, as Obokata and her team of experts announced their stunning findings of stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) cells, the media depicted her as the rising star among “rikejo” or female scientists. TV networks carried footages of Obokata in her white “kappogi” traditional apron instead of a laboratory gown. The pink and yellow walls of her lab with Moomin characters painted on them helped highlight the girlish side of the scientist, and also made Riken seem like a cool place to work. Oh, she had a pet turtle there, too.

But as revelations on alleged fabrication of data came to light in February, gossip magazines began attacks on Obokata’s personality and lavishing looks as well as her reputation among friends and co-workers. Then came the press conference, where, in addition to Obokata’s apologies and claims that she would stand by her findings, some reported on the changes seen in her clothing and accessories. A sports newspaper even touched on the size of her breasts. A psychotherapist said on TV that Obokata made fewer gestures than January, an indicator that she was emotionally less conspicuous.

This isn’t to say that reportings on the real issues weren’t in place. But with too much gossip on Obokata – nowdays called “Obo-chan” by some – many will associate STAP cell controversy with her perfectly coiffed hair, tearful apology and the innocent claim that STAP cells do exist, rather than her lack of skills and ethics and the damage it has caused.

But then again, the excessive media coverage may have encouraged whistleblowers to step for ward. The situation involving Riken has taken several turns, including the resignation of Shunsuke Ishii, who headed the in-house investigation committee that accused Obokata of intentional manipulation of data, after allegations surfaced that his own paper contained cut and pastes of images. Feeling a sense of crisis, Riken President and Nobel laureate Ryoji Noyori has ordered some 3,000 papers authored by Riken senior researchers to be checked for any wrongdoings.