An example of integrity

April 01, 1991|By Alan K. Lecker, the Stamford (Ct.) Advocate

AT A TIME when missiles are embraced as patriots, in name and in deed, Margot O'Toole offers Americans an instructive lesson in heroism in real human terms.

O'Toole is the hero of a story that has just unfolded. In 1986, as a junior researcher in molecular biology at Massachusetts Institute Technology, she attempted to expose a major hoax perpetrated by one of the school's scientists.

O'Toole challenged a study by her laboratory supervisor, Thereza Imanishi-Kari, who concluded that transplanted genes could stimulate a recipient's immune system. The finding was without precedent, and has not been validated since, for good reason: It was fabricated.

O'Toole reported her suspicions to her senior adviser and later testified before Congress.

David A. Baltimore, a Nobel laureate and co-author of a research paper that incorporated the disputed work, at the time dismissed O'Toole as a "disgruntled postdoctoral fellow."

He has since retracted the paper. Too bad he cannot retract his words, and the damage that they caused.

O'Toole paid dearly for challenging the scientific establishment: She lost her research job at MIT and her house, and ended up answering phones at her brother's moving company.

She has finally been accorded the appropriate accolades. The ++ National Institutes of Health, which recently concluded that the genetic study was a fraud, commended O'Toole for taking a stand. "Dr. O'Toole suffered substantially for the simple act of raising questions about a scientific paper," the agency said in a report. "Notwithstanding the losses and costs she incurred, Dr. O'Toole maintained her commitment to scientific integrity."

Integrity. Now there is a word for the national vocabulary. Somehow it got lost when ethics landed on the junk bond junk pile of the '80s.

That is no less true for science. With grants often setting the agenda, science has become as much an industry as General Motors, and industry clearly places a premium on conformity. There is little incentive, and far less reward, for the courage of convictions exemplified by Margot O'Toole.

No wonder the scientific community has been so defensive. The incident raises serious questions about ethics and safeguards against fraud in scientific research.

Truth and justice are supposed to be cornerstones of the American ideal. Margot O'Toole came forward in defense of truth with the reasonable expectation that justice would follow. It is a shame that, in her case, justice was delayed and very nearly denied.

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