Seoul National University's disciplinary committee announced today that it would dismiss disgraced cloner Woo Suk Hwang, a professor at its Veterinary College, for his involvement in fabricating data. Six other professors and co-authors on the two papers on embryonic stem cell cloning, which were published in 2004 and 2005 and later retracted from Science (ScienceNOW, 2 February), received lighter sentences.
At a press conference, Chang Ku Byun, dean of academic affairs, said dismissal is the harshest punishment the committee could impose. Hwang will be banned from working in a public position for 5 years after his dismissal and will receive only half of his retirement money.
According to Byun, Hwang said that he would take all responsibility for the fabrication because he was the leader of the cloning project. In particular, Hwang admitted to ordering a junior researcher to take photographs of two stem cell lines in the 2005 article so that it would look as if the team had created 11 customized stem cell lines.
The committee also suspended four other professors and cut the wages of two. Shin Yong Moon and Sung Keun Kang were both suspended for 3 months; Byung Cheon Lee and Curie Ahn were suspended for 2 months. They will all receive one-third of their wages during the suspension period and are not eligible for promotions for an additional 18 months. Chang Gyu Lee and Sun Ha Baek will have their wages deducted by one-third for 1 month.
"The professors fundamentally went back on the values of integrity and honesty that should have been kept as an academic and professor of a national university," Byun said. He explained that the committee imposed comparatively harsher punishment on Moon and Kang because Moon was a co-author of the 2004 paper and Kang was working in the same lab as Hwang and was deeply involved in the data manipulation. Lee and Baek were listed as co-authors but did not make any contributions to the paper, Byun added.
Meanwhile, the special investigative team of Seoul's Central Prosecutors' Office said today that the initial contamination of stem cells in January last year was not deliberate, as they had previously thought, but arose from "accidents" by the researchers. The prosecutors are still investigating whether stem cells from Hwang's project were intentionally switched with those of MizMedi Hospital, which collaborated with Hwang on the research. The prosecutors, who are also examining how Hwang spent state funds and private donations, hope to conclude their investigations early next month.