Sacked Japanese biologist gets chance to retrain at Crick institute

Yoshinori Watanabe hopes to revive his career by attending a year-long retraining programme.
Yoshinori Watanabe in a laboratory.

Watanabe, who has done groundbreaking work in chromosome biology, will attend a retraining programme in London.Credit: Matthew Butt/Crick Inst.

Prominent cell biologist Yoshinori Watanabe, who was dismissed by the University of Tokyo last month, is attempting to put his past behind him by embarking on an intensive retraining programme with Nobel prizewinner Paul Nurse in London. The university dismissed Watanabe after an investigation concluded that he had committed scientific misconduct.

Watanabe, who has done groundbreaking work in chromosome biology and has a string of impressive scientific achievements to his name, arrived at Nurse’s laboratory on 16 April. Watanabe says the programme will focus on data acquisition and presentation, and also involve experiments. “After that period of retraining, I hope that I will be able to find somewhere to continue my research career,” he says. Watanabe told Nature that he made mistakes in scientific papers, but that he did not intend to deceive and that he thinks these errors do not amount to serious misconduct.

Programmes to retrain errant scientists are rare. A rehabilitation initiative run by ethicist James DuBois at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, with support from the US Office of Research Integrity, trained 61 researchers between 2013 and 2017. Participants who are referred to the programme have generally made careless mistakes, failed to provide adequate oversight, or not complied with policies on the treatment of human research participants, animal welfare or the declaration of conflicts of interests. But few of the rehabilitation participants have been accused of manipulating data as Watanabe was.

Second chance

Nurse, who mentored Watanabe when he was a postdoctoral researcher in the 1990s, thinks that the biologist deserves the opportunity to redeem himself. “The research community and institutions need to think more about how to handle rehabilitation in cases like this,” says Nurse, a cell biologist and director of the Francis Crick Institute in London. Nurse declined to comment further on the retraining. A spokesperson for the institute says that “it isn’t part of a formal approach being taken by the Crick. It’s a one-off situation — Paul Nurse agreed to give Dr Watanabe an opportunity for retraining.”

Frank Uhlmann, a cell-division researcher at the Crick, has been advising on Watanabe’s retraining. He suggests that Watanabe’s experiments at the Crick include the use of automated image-acquisition and analysis tools, and a double-blind laboratory set-up that conceals from the experimenter which data are the tests and which the controls. Watanabe told Nature he intends to do both.

Bill Earnshaw, a cell biologist at the University of Edinburgh, UK, says he is happy that Nurse is giving Watanabe this opportunity. “But whether this will succeed, only time will tell — as I know of no precedent for this. I am supportive and cautiously optimistic,” he says.

Watanabe says he is excited about the opportunity to retrain at the Crick, but thinks it will be a challenge to secure a new research position.

A promising career

After a career spanning more than three decades, Watanabe’s experiments continue to form the bedrock of scientists’ understanding of how proteins drive the separation of chromosomes when cells divide. “His major findings have been correct and influential,” says Arshad Desai, a cell biologist at the University of California, San Diego.

But last August, the University of Tokyo announced that five of Watanabe’s papers contained manipulated images and improperly merged data sets that amounted to scientific misconduct. One of those papers has since been retracted and two have been corrected. Two others have corrections under consideration, according to Watanabe. Another university investigation into nine other papers found no evidence of misconduct.

Watanabe says that the university’s investigation made him aware of “issues concerning contrast in pictures and checking original imaging files”. He says, however, that he did not intend to deceive and that the issues did not affect the main conclusions of the papers. Although Watanabe resigned from the university on 28 February this year, his official dismissal from the university means he will not receive a pension.

Many of Watanabe’s colleagues think he deserves an opportunity to make amends. Julia Cooper, a molecular biologist at the US National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, says that data manipulation is never acceptable. But she thinks the sanctions were too harsh and incommensurate with the degree of wrongdoing. “Yoshinori absolutely deserves a second chance,” she says.

Several people contacted by Nature did not want to be quoted, citing either the sensitive nature of the situation or its complexity. But most have faith in Nurse’s judgement. “Should Paul urge Watanabe’s rehabilitation, then I think there’s some hope Watanabe will be able to return to science,” one researcher said. Another expects that Watanabe’s retraining will be successful.

Despite helping to design Watanabe’s rehabilitation programme, Uhlmann is unsure whether it will make a difference. He commends Watanabe’s willingness to engage with his retraining, but says “we will only know at the end of it whether his heart is where his mouth is”.

Watanabe emphasizes that his willingness to embark on the training and acknowledgement that he made errors is evidence that he will change his ways.

Silke Hauf, who was one of Watanabe’s postdoctoral researcher and is now a cell biologist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, says that Watanabe deserves another chance, but is likely to struggle to regain his career even after retraining. “No institution wants to give the appearance of fostering misconduct,” she says, “but allowing people to rectify mistakes must be part of a scientific culture.”

Nature 557, 288-289 (2018)

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