Data Tampering Has Shaken Public Trust in Space Development

Space development requires a huge amount of funds, and it is essential to gain the understanding of the public. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) must overhaul its research system and regain the trust that has been damaged.

A JAXA research team led by astronaut Satoshi Furukawa was found to have fabricated data in a medical experiment. Furukawa has been reprimanded by JAXA. This is the first time disciplinary action has been taken against an active astronaut in Japan. It is an unusual situation.

The experiment was conducted between 2016 and 2017. It involved 40 people being confined to a closed facility for two weeks with stress levels examined through blood tests and interviews to ascertain the mental state of the participants.

However, when it was discovered that blood samples taken from the participants had been mistakenly mixed up, an investigation team was set up to probe the matter. It was subsequently discovered that the results of interviews had been rewritten and that the team had falsified the report to make it seem as though three researchers had interviewed the participants, when only two researchers had done so. This can be said to be a clear case of research misconduct.

Reportedly, some people at the agency voiced concerns about the experiment itself. Furukawa, who pushed ahead with the experiment without listening to such concerns, bears a heavy responsibility. The astronaut is scheduled to stay on the International Space Station on a long-term mission in the near future. It is worrisome that Japan’s international credibility could be undermined.

Furukawa, a medical doctor, had reportedly been very busy, serving as the head of the research team in parallel with his duties as an astronaut. He was working on a large-scale medical experiment amid a shortage of manpower. The plan may have been unreasonable from the start.

In spite of this, the research team led by Furukawa prioritized completing the experiment on schedule. A large amount of public funds were invested in the experiment. It must be said that there was a lack of awareness of research ethics.

The problem is not limited to the individual responsibilities of Furukawa and the other researchers. JAXA is said to be strong in engineering, among other fields, but its research capabilities in the field of medicine may have been lacking. It is not surprising that three JAXA executives, including President Hiroshi Yamakawa, were given strict warnings and other disciplinary measures.

More than 10,000 people applied to participate in the experiment. More than 4,000 people have also applied for new astronaut positions. It must be said that JAXA has become complacent amid the high public interest in space, and has not been fully aware of the weight of its responsibility.

JAXA, in cooperation with the United States, is aiming to send Japanese astronauts on a lunar exploration mission. It will be important for JAXA to accumulate knowledge in space medicine in order to take on such a mission.

JAXA must not let the experiment end in failure. Medical knowledge, such as how to reduce the stress of astronauts in space, is essential. It is hoped that the agency will find ways to enhance the effects of its research.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Jan. 20, 2023)