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Incubating Innovation or Cultivating Corruption?: The Developmental State and the Life Sciences in Asia

From: Social Forces
Volume 88, Number 3, March 2010
pp. 1231-1255 | 10.1353/sof.0.0282

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A substantial body of literature purports to document the growth of scientific misconduct in Northeast Asia. This article traces the apparent growth of research fraud and falsification to two distinct features of the national innovation systems common to the region: liberal research regimes adopted by developmental states and marked by freedom from government oversight, and illiberal laboratory cultures imported from Germany and marked by all-powerful lab directors and their vulnerable underlings. Based on comparative, qualitative case studies of pioneering countries in bio-medical research, as well as cross-national quantitative analyses of the permissiveness of national stem-cell research policies, we argue that Asia’s scientific pathologies are the products of two institutional factors: funding and freedom offered to scientists by developmental states, and the lack of informal control prevalent in the German model of higher education. We conclude that, while Northeast Asian officials offer their biomedical researchers funding and freedom to take advantage of opportunities that rarely exist in the West, their scientists stifle open debate and criticism, and thereby hinder the growth of informal as well as formal control mechanisms that are critical for deterring and detecting scientific fraud.

Introduction

Why is Northeast Asia particularly prone to scientific scandal (Financial Times 2006; Beech 2006; Nordling 2006; Shetty 2007)? We trace the answer to two distinct features of the “national innovation systems” (Nelson 1993) engendered and exploited by the region’s policymakers in the late 20th century: (1. liberal research regimes adopted by “developmental” states (Johnson 1982) in an effort to overtake their advanced industrial counterparts, and (2. illiberal laboratory cultures inherited from Germany by way of imperial Japan (Ben-David 1977; Altbach 1989).1 While Northeast Asian officials offer biomedical researchers funding and freedom, and thereby exploit opportunities all but foregone in the West (Fukuyama 2002; Einhorn 2005; Owen-Smith and McCormick 2006), their academic collaborators disdain debate and disclosure, thereby inhibiting the growth of informal as well as formal control mechanisms that might otherwise deter misconduct (Normile 2003; Ihlwan 2005; Beech 2006; DeJonquieres 2006; Financial Times 2006; Gottweis and Triendl 2006).

Our primary argument is worth underscoring at the outset: neither a liberal research regime nor an illiberal laboratory culture is a sufficient basis for widespread scientific misconduct. By providing abundant resources to heavy-handed lab directors who produce high-profile articles in Western journals, Northeast Asian policymakers offer their scientists a motive–pecuniary and non-pecuniary rewards–and a means–deference and discipline on the part of their subordinates–to perpetrate fraud and falsification. The resources are allocated by developmental states; the labs are products of German models of higher education; and the misconduct is an outgrowth of their interaction in contemporary Northeast Asia.

Intellectual Context

Woo-Suk Hwang completed his doctorate in veterinary science at Seoul National University and joined the faculty there in 1986. Almost two decades later, Hwang and his collaborators announced three “striking achievements.” In March 2004, they described the successful generation of a line of embryonic human stem cells from the nucleus of an adult cell in Science. In June 2005, they described a significant improvement in the efficiency of their nuclear transfer procedure in the same venue. In August 2005, they announced their successful effort to clone a dog–an animal notoriously resistant to cloning–in Nature.

Hwang’s purported contributions to the growing field of regenerative medicine captured the imaginations of scientists and their supporters worldwide. They also transformed him into a veritable celebrity–complete with fan club and $65 million research fund–in his homeland (Kang and Segal 2006). By the end of 2005, however, Hwang’s reputation would be irreparably damaged by allegations that he had falsified two of his three most important articles and that international stem cell research was not nearly as far along as previously believed.2 Following an internal investigation, SNU dismissed Hwang, and the Korean government filed charges against him for the fraudulent use of government research funds. Subsequent allegations have included the intimidation of subordinates, payments of hush money to colleagues, and influence peddling within the Korean academy.

Hwang is neither the first, nor in all likelihood the last, of his compatriots to fall from scientific grace. Unverified claims...