Bad Science, Bad Response

March 28, 1991

Five years ago, a junior researcher on a federally supported investigation of immune system behavior blew the whistle on what she thought were inaccuracies, misinterpretations and misjudgments in producing a paper for Cell, a scientific journal. Blowing the whistle may seem a fine tradition, but in the elite circles of science, where reputations, connections and image are so important, it cost the junior researcher, post-doctoral fellow Margot O'Toole, her laboratory job.

An outcry followed, if slow to build in intensity. Ms. O'Toole had met with David Baltimore, then head of the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Mass.; David Weaver, lead author of the Cell paper; Herman Eisen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology immunologist and prober of Ms. O'Toole's contentions; and Thereza Imanishi-Kari, whose contributions to the paper were in dispute. That went nowhere, despite Ms. O'Toole's discovery of 17 pages of lab notes that showed that part of the experiment did not work as claimed.

Congress eventually became concerned. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., head of the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, had the Secret Service check out the disputed lab notes, discovering that some of them could not have been written when claimed. Scientists all over rallied to denounce Mr. Dingell's "prosecutorial" inquiry, neatly overlooking Congress' responsibility to scrutinize closely the spending of public money. How dare Congress, or any lay group, presume to say what is valid scientific research and what is not?

What scientists really needed to do was to repeat the experiments and see for themselves. Denouncing critics from afar without looking closely at the disputed data violates a basic tenet of science: objective analysis of the facts.

Continuing review of the case, finally in the hands of the Office of Scientific Integrity at the National Institutes of Health, reportedly raises serious questions of fraud in the preparation and defense of the Cell paper. Mr. Baltimore, now head of Rockefeller University, has asked that the paper be withdrawn. No hint of wrongdoing by him or Mr. Weaver has surfaced, but their rush to judge Ms. O'Toole deficient, rather than look hard at what she was saying, now leaves them open to criticism.

That's vindication at last for Ms. O'Toole, but she should not have had to endure such pain over trying to be honest. The lesson here is that American science can never become so ossified that reputations grow big enough to obscure the facts. Science, the hard-headed profession and practice of looking skeptically at everything, can only suffer as the laymen who pay the bills look askance at such transgressions and disbelieve all scientific claims.

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