[Korean History] In 2005, science world’s biggest scandal unravels in Seoul
In the winter of 2005, South Korea experienced a roller coaster of emotion, looping between shock, disbelief and relief multiple times after Hwang Woo-suk, then the country’s most revered scientist as well as a symbol of national pride and hope for the terminally ill, faced whistleblower accusations for grave ethics breaches, followed by even graver matters of data fabrication.
After a whirlwind of claims and counterclaims that left many at a loss as to what to believe, by December of that year it became clear that the country's beloved cloning guru was fake.
“Hwang’s stem cells were fake: associates” was the boldest headline on the front page of The Korea Herald on Dec. 15, 2005.
'Miracle' study from much-hyped scientist
Hwang's downfall was not just a Korean issue. The fraud sent shockwaves through the science world.
Hwang garnered international fame as his team succeeded in the world-first clonings of a calf in 1999, a pig in 2000 and finally a dog in 2005. In between, in 2004 his team claimed to have created an embryonic stem cell line from a cloned human embryo, with the work published in the prestigious Science journal.
He went on to build his reputation as a pioneer in therapeutic cloning, the applications of which could have presented opportunities such as developing muscle, nerve or other cells that make up the body’s tissue. In his 2005 study, his team claimed to have cloned 11 person-specific stem cells using 185 eggs, sparking global excitement for a cloning breakthrough in treating illness.
And Hwang knew how to play up to the hype, never shying away from publicity and always choosing the right words to invoke nationalistic pride.
On KBS TV’s “Open Concert” on July 31, 2005, Hwang took the stage right after a performance by dance duo Clon, one member of which -- Kang Won-rae -- was in a wheelchair as the result of a traffic accident.
“I hope for a day that (Kang) will get up and perform magnificently as he did in the past,” Hwang said.
During a meeting with then-President Roh Moo-hyun, the then-Seoul National University professor even expressed his ambitions to bring the country its first Nobel Prize in a scientific field.
Shattered national pride
The saga that eventually brought Hwang back down to earth began in November 2005, when MBC TV’s investigative journalism program “PD Notebook” raised issue with the source of egg cells used in his study. They were initially reported to be from voluntary donors, but later were found to have been in part from Hwang’s subordinate researchers.
Although Hwang himself eventually admitted to ethics breaches in egg procurement and resigned from his official positions at the university, public opinion turned hostile toward MBC for hampering Hwang’s research that many deemed as being too significant to be hindered for procedural issues.
Local firms that commissioned their advertisements to be aired with the MBC program were pelleted with customer complaints, and 11 of the 12 TV ads initially aired before the show were discontinued.
Confronting critics head on, “PD's Notepad” aired a follow-up report that questioned the validity of Hwang’s work itself. A community of young scientists joined in, pointing out suspicious errors in Hwang’s paper, including that photos of the same cells had been portrayed as being of different ones.
After an investigation, the Seoul National University announced on Jan. 10, 2006, that the entirety of Hwang's human stem cell research had been fabricated and there were no cloned stem cells.
The source behind the "PD Notebook" report was a former member of Hwang’s team, Ryu Young-joon, who blew the whistle on his former boss about ethical issues and questioned how it “wasn’t logical” that Hwang had managed to roll out 11 embryonic stem cells in such a short time. Ryu said he was infuriated by the lack of ethics, particularly when he saw Hwang promise a 10-year-old patient with spinal surgery that he “can heal him” while pushing him to partake in a clinical trial.
The Hwang frenzy did not die out even as his reputation as a scientist was forever tarnished, and he stood trial on charges including bioethics law violations and embezzlement.
In January 2006, over 2,000 people gathered at Gwanghwamun Plaza demanding that Hwang’s work be resumed. A Realmeter survey in the same month with 551 people across the country showed that 70.6 percent of respondents thought that Hwang should be given the chance to re-create his work.