WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Nobel laureates are the royalty of science. Post-doctoral researchers are the serfs, working on short
contracts while striving for secure jobs. In 1986, prospects glowed for Margot O'Toole, a 33-year-old post-doc in immunology at MIT. Then she committed a perilous act that derailed her career.
Dr. O'Toole questioned the validity of a breakthrough researc paper co-authored in the prestigious journal Cell by the Nobel laureate David Baltimore and Dr. O'Toole's laboratory chief, Thereza Imanishi-Kari. Shortly afterward, Dr. O'Toole was fired and denied the recommendations essential for finding a job in the small tribe of immunology researchers. But she persisted with her challenge to the paper.
Now, after five years of inquiry, investigators at the Nationa Institutes of Health have concluded that she was right -- the paper is riddled with false and fabricated data. After resolutely defending the paper (hence the ''Baltimore case''), Dr. Baltimore, now president of Rockefeller University, has asked that it be withdrawn from the scientific literature. But the stain on science extends beyond one falsified paper. Throughout the long ordeal, prominent members of the scientific establishment closed ranks to challenge Dr. O'Toole, misrepresent the validity of the faked experiment, and discredit congressional interest in the case as an attack on science.
The data challenged by Dr. O'Toole were produced by Dr Imanishi-Kari in a collaborative experiment with Dr. Baltimore, then at MIT. The challenge was rejected in quick inquiries held by MIT and Tufts University, where Dr. Imanishi-Kari moved in 1986. Dr. O'Toole then brought the case to the National Institutes of Health, which had financed the disputed research. It made plans to appoint a three-member investigative panel including two longtime collaborators of Dr. Baltimore. After their suitability was questioned by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who chairs a committee with jurisdiction over the NIH, the investigation was recast with members remote from the parties.
In January 1989, the panel reported finding no evidence of frau or misrepresentation, but faulted the paper for ''serious errors of misstatement and omission, as well as lapses in scientific judgment and inter-laboratory communication.'' The NIH directed Dr. Baltimore and company to publish corrections. The final draft of the panel report strongly commended Dr. O'Toole for scientific integrity. But the praise was missing from the published version. Questioned by Representative Dingell, NIH officials and the panel members acknowledged that the words were once there but could not explain the deletion.
The case was reopened three months later when Dr. O'Tool charged that Dr. Imanishi-Kari had thrown the NIH off the fraud trail by hurriedly fabricating laboratory records to support the findings in the challenged paper. Analyses by Secret Service technicians confirmed that crucial sections of her lab records were written several years after the reported experiments were conducted.
Leading scientists rallied to support Dr. Baltimore. In a ''Dea Colleague'' letter to hundreds of scientists, Phillip A. Sharp, Director of the MIT Center for Cancer Research, warned of a congressional ''vendetta against honest scientists,'' and urged a counter-attack through op-ed articles and letters to the editor. Two weeks later, an op-ed column in the New York Times by a dean of Columbia College, Robert E. Pollack, stated that ''the way Dr. Baltimore is being treated means that witch-hunts are in the offing.''
In May 1989, Prof. Henry Wortis, head of the Tufts inquiry tha had cleared the paper, testified that the controversy was meaningless because the ''central conclusions have been confirmed'' by independent experiments ''that have not yet been submitted for publication.'' Two years later, these experiments have still not been published. Dr. Wortis declines to discuss them.
On March 14, the Office of Scientific Integrity at the NI concluded in a 121-page report that Dr. Imanishi-Kari had ''fabricated'' laboratory records and had ''repeatedly presented false and misleading infor- mation'' to the NIH.
Dr. Baltimore's long-standing defense of the paper was described in the report as ''difficult to comprehend'' and his defense of Dr. Imanishi-Kari ''extraordinary.'' The report added, ''Dr. Baltimore, by virtue of his seniority and standing, might have been instrumental in effecting a resolution of the concerns about the Cell paper early on, possibly before Dr. Imanishi-Kari fabricated some of the data later found to be fraudulent.''
The report concludes: ''Dr. O'Toole's actions were heroic i many respects. She deserves the approbation and gratitude of the scientific community for her courage and her dedication to the belief that truth in science matters.''
O'Toole was hired last year to do cancer research at Cambridge, Mass., biotechnology firm. Her career is back on track. Heroic is indeed the proper word for her performance in this long episode. For the science establishment, another term is appropriate: squalid.
Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.