The Growing Problem of Sleaze in Science

Daniel S. Greenberg

September 17, 1990|By Daniel S. Greenberg

WASHINGTON — Washington. FROM LABORATORY PAYOLA to faked data and plagiarism -- it's all there in a new congressionally compiled sampler of sleaze in science.

Read it and despair about the white-coated realm of truth-seeking, where it can be perilous to tackle intellectual crooks and profitable to compromise scientific independence. The science establishment has responded to the congressional allegations with assurances that it has cleaned up the mess and no government intervention is required. But isn't that what Wall Street said in the early days of its assorted scandals?

The grisly details from science are contained in a report, ''Are Scientific Misconduct and Conflicts of Interest Hazardous to Our Health?'' issued recently by a House Government Operations subcommittee chaired by Rep. Ted Weiss, D-N.Y. The answer to the question in the title is yes, and is sustained by accounts of recent scientific delinquencies.

The subcommittee report cites the case of a clot-dissolving heart drug, tissue plasminogen activator (t-PA), that was favorably evaluated from 1985-1988 for the National Institutes of Health by a research group that included stockholders in Genentech, the firm that developed the drug. ''Although it was not publicly reported at the time,'' the report states, ''at least 13 of the researchers involved in the NIH-funded research owned stock in Genentech or held options to buy the stock at discount.''

The researchers reported that t-PA was more effective than a rival drug one-tenth as costly, a finding that was disputed last March in a report based on a 13-nation study involving 22,000 patients. There's no evidence that professional judgment was swayed by financial interest, but the appearances in the t-PA episode do not inspire confidence.

Then there's the case of Stephen Breuning, formerly of the University of Pittsburgh, a psychologist who acquired an international reputation in the early 1980s for his reported research on tranquilizers with severely retarded institutionalized children. His work looked suspicious to an experienced professor collaborating with him, Robert Sprague of the University of Illinois.

Mr. Sprague brought his suspicions to the attention of the National Institute of Mental Health, which was financing the research. The Institute said Pittsburgh was responsible for policing its researchers; Pittsburgh said Mr. Breuning, who had promptly resigned when confronted, was not its responsibility. Mr. Sprague persisted -- and was rewarded with termination of his own research grant. Mr. Sprague still persisted, and Mr. Breuning eventually was indicted and convicted of defrauding the federal government.

There's a postscript to this case: Often invited to lecture about the case, Mr. Sprague was threatened with a libel suit by the University of Pittsburgh for his description of its sorry performance. When the threat came to light, the University recanted.

The Weiss committee report also tells the story of Heidi Weissmann, a physician-researcher at the Montefiore Medical Center, an affiliate of the Albert Einstein Medical College, in New York. In 1987, when her longtime boss and research collaborator, Dr. Leonard Freeman, took her name off a paper she had written and substituted his own she protested, and eventually was vindicated in a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Outcome: Dr. Weissmann lost her job at the Medical Center and Dr. Freeman was promoted to departmental vice chairman. The committee report notes that three years later, ''Albert Einstein College of Medicine has still not decided whether or not the plagiarism allegations against Dr. Freeman are serious enough to warrant an investigation.''

The leaders of science don't welcome outside scrutiny of the ethical quality of their profession. But hungry for public financial support, they realized they must respond to allegations of delinquency.

The initial approach was to deny a problem existed. For example, in 1987, the editor of America's leading research journal, Science, dismissed concern about scientific fraud with the assertion that ''99.9999 percent'' of scientific reports are ''accurate and truthful'' -- a most unscientific statement which has haunted him ever since.

Three years later, many more disturbing cases having come to light, the response to the Weiss report shows a tactical turn. In the words of Robert Rosenzweig, president of the Association of American Universities -- lobby of the big research institutions -- academe has cleaned up its act. He was referring to numerous conferences on combating fraud in science, new disclosure requirements on conflicts of interest and more diligent pursuit of fraud cases by federal agencies. The committee report, he said, ''is way behind the times.''

The trends are indeed favorable. But at this point, the most that XTC can be said is that more cops are on the beat. It's far from certain that there's less crime or that the ethical state of science is coming back from a long slump.

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