A Japanese astronaut will not lose his 2023 mission to the space station despite his involvement in a research scandal, according to media reports.
Astronaut Satoshi Furukawa and his team, however, will be “appropriately” punished for “fabricated” and “altered” research study data simulating an astronaut’s work on the International Space Station, the Japanese agency said. for Aerospace Exploration (JAXA) in English reports from United Press International (UPI) (opens in a new tab) and the Japan Times (opens in a new tab).
Furukawa, originally trained as a physician and surgeon, would have had a supervisory role in the research and no other direct involvement in the work.
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“The sloppy management of the experiment damaged the credibility of [our] research data and the scientific value of research as a whole,” Hiroshi Sasaki, JAXA Vice President, said in UPI’s Nov. 25 report. (opens in a new tab)echoing the tone of an official statement (opens in a new tab) of the space agency.
JAXA officials said the situation made it impossible “to obtain reliable data worthy of publication” and that the study methodology “was a betrayal of the good intentions” of the research subjects. The space agency also apologized for the study. (Japanese translation provided by Google.)
Furukawa last flew to the orbital complex in 2011 for three months shortly after a deadly tsunami wiped out much of Japan’s infrastructure; it is scheduled for a second long-duration mission no earlier than 2023.
The research scandal comes at a time when JAXA, which owns nearly 13% of the ISS’s crew and research time, is ramping up future human spaceflight collaborations with NASA. (Japan’s main contribution to the space station is the Kibo lab, along with a robotic arm and other hardware.)
As part of a broader U.S. international trade deal announced in May, Japanese astronauts have been promised seats for Artemis missions to the moon and potentially a coveted landing mission location, according to comments from U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the time.
Furukawa’s controversial study aimed to examine 42 people working in a closed environment for two weeks at a facility northeast of Tokyo, to “assess their stress levels and mental well-being”, Japan Today reported. (opens in a new tab). (Analog studies like this are normal practice in space research, allowing for a wider range of participants than the roughly 500 professional astronauts who have been to space.)
The experiments took place in several cycles between 2016 and 2017, and no scientific review results were produced after the study was stopped in 2019.
The Japanese Language Survey Report (opens in a new tab) from JAXA says “non-existent data was created” in at least five interviews associated with the study, a situation discovered after an independent evaluator could not confirm that a selection of the purported interviews had existed or had been recorded. (Translation provided by Reverso.)
“The creation of non-existent data undermines the credibility of research content, and was deemed to be an act that could be considered ‘fabrication’ from the perspective of researchers in general and the society,” officials wrote.
Investigators found rewritten and “falsified” research data that “compromised” the reliability of the experiment, as well as issues with scientific validity, data collection and data management, according to the report.
Study leaders also failed to seek informed consent from at least some participants, the report says — a major violation of basic research ethics in jurisdictions in Japan and the United States.
Informed consent ensures that subjects know why they are participating in a study, how their data will be used, how their privacy will be protected, and what countermeasures are available in the event of mental or physical problems associated with participation, among other safeguards.
JAXA officials said the agency would report the results to two ministers (heads of government departments) responsible for health and education, adding that the agency was examining the causes of the problems to “consider measures to prevent them from happening again”.
Elizabeth Howell is co-author of “Why am I taller (opens in a new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book on space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in a new tab). Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) Where Facebook (opens in a new tab).
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