Japan’s space agency admits to cooking research data

Data doctoring and governance issues have been rife in Japan, though this marks a rare case in academia and research. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO – A renowned Japanese astronaut has been implicated in research fraud at the nation’s space agency, in a case that has been criticised as a “betrayal of public trust”.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) in November cited multiple cases of data tampering and fabrication during a 190 million yen (S$1.9 million) experiment to measure the impact of living in space.

The experiment was overseen by Dr Satoshi Furukawa, 58, a trained surgeon and the third Japanese national to complete a long-term mission in space. 

He spent five months at the International Space Station in 2011, and is scheduled for a second stint in space in 2023.

Data doctoring and governance issues have been rife in Japan, though this marks a rare case in academia and research.

In the civil service, Finance Ministry documents were manipulated in 2017 over a sweetheart land deal that had implicated then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a cronyism scandal.

In 2018, the government confessed to having inflated for decades the number of people with disabilities under its employment to meet its own targets. In 2021, the Land Ministry admitted to routinely jacking up data on construction orders.

In the corporate sector, systemic data rigging had been discovered in companies such as Kobe Steel, Nissan, Subaru, Mitsubishi Electric, Mitsubishi Materials, Toray Industries and quake shock absorber maker KYB.

In the latest case, Jaxa executive director Hiroshi Sasaki, apologising in a news conference on Nov 25, said the researchers “had a dismissive attitude to the sincere collection of scientific data” and vowed to tighten processes.

He stressed that the case does not fall under research misconduct because the experiment did not yield any scientific papers.

Mr Sasaki also defended Dr Furukawa, who had supervisory authority but was not directly involved in the research, by saying that he had too much work and could not dedicate sufficient time to the research. 

Jaxa had kept Dr Furukawa’s name under wraps until it emerged after further prodding by journalists.

The fallout came fast and furious.

Ms Sanae Takaichi, Minister of State for Space Policy, said she doubted claims of Dr Furukawa’s lack of involvement, adding that Jaxa’s response was extraordinarily slow.

Science Minister Keiko Nagaoka, meanwhile, urged Jaxa to improve its research management and ethical compliance. She said: “We believe the reason for the non-compliance was that Jaxa’s medical research management system on human subjects was inadequate.”

The Asahi Shimbun said in an editorial that the sloppiness of the experiment was not only surprising but also disturbing. 

It also slammed Mr Sasaki for being disingenuous by saying that there was no research misconduct, pointing to how a company sponsor that was involved in the experiment had used the results as a basis for product development.

The Mainichi Shimbun said in an editorial that given Japan’s space ambitions, it was a grievous problem that amounted to a betrayal of public trust. 

It added: “Jaxa must deal with the facts with the gravity they warrant, and speedily rebuild its research system.”

About 11,000 people had registered with Jaxa to take part in the experiment held from 2016 to 2017, with 42 volunteers selected to spend two weeks at a mock space station at the Jaxa facility in Tsukuba, Ibaraki prefecture.

Living in isolation chambers that mimicked the living quarters of astronauts during planetary exploration, they were subject to a battery of tests, including blood, saliva and urine sampling, as well as psychiatric assessments.

But Jaxa has confessed that, among other things, some psychiatric evaluations were cooked up without interviews actually having been conducted, while blood samples had been mixed up.

Few research notes were kept, while there were many data entry omissions and calculation errors.

A source told Kyodo News Agency that Dr Furukawa was informed of the lapses in 2018, but he chose to withhold the information from Jaxa’s ethics committee as it “meant going off schedule”.

Dr Furukawa has not yet publicly commented on the experiments, which were halted in 2019.

“I believe that the qualities of a person in charge of conducting research and the qualities of an astronaut are different,” Mr Sasaki said, when asked if the data fraud would derail Dr Furukawa’s scheduled departure for space.

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