A high price for honesty

Arthur Caplan

April 03, 1991|By Arthur Caplan

DO YOU believe that honesty is the best policy?

Consider the fate of Margot O'Toole, who is paying too high a price for being honest.

In 1985, O'Toole -- a newly minted Ph.D. in cellular immunology -- got her first job in the laboratory of Dr. Thereza Imanishi-Kari at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While working there, O'Toole came across pages of raw data on an experiment conducted by Imanishi-Kari and a team of other researchers -- including Dr. David Baltimore, a molecular biologist who won the Nobel Prize in 1975 for his work on cancer-causing viruses.

O'Toole believed the data she was looking at did not square with the version of the experiment that had been published in Cell, the prestigious scientific journal. She told Baltimore and authorities at M.I.T. that she believed Imanishi-Kari had faked her data.

That report cost Margot O'Toole her job. She became the subject of nasty rumors and malicious gossip. As a result, she could not find another job in any lab in the Boston area. Ultimately, she and her husband lost their newly purchased home.

While O'Toole went jobless for the next six years, Imanishi-Kari moved on to a new position at Tufts University. Baltimore became the president of Rockefeller University in New York City -- one of the most prestigious positions in science.

The pressure on O'Toole to withdraw her charges, both from her peers and from her own bank book, was enormous. But she doggedly stuck to her claim.

Last week, a National Institutes of Health panel concluded that O'Toole was right. The published paper contains fraudulent data. Baltimore now says that Imanishi-Kari should confess and retract the disputed publication.

The O'Toole affair has elicited much comment and editorializing. Some worry that it shows the scientific community cannot be trusted to police itself. Others say they fear that Congress may be encouraged to keep a tighter reign on funding for the National Institutes of Health -- which means more meddling by non-scientists with science.

But nary a word has been heard about what Margot O'Toole's honesty cost her.

Should we expect those who suspect fraud, misconduct or deceit in science -- science that you and I pay for with our tax dollars -- to sacrifice their careers for the truth? Is it fair that the price of blowing the whistle is to have your career blown apart?

One way to encourage the reporting of suspected fraud or misconduct would be to create an insurance pool for whistle-blowers. Congress should instruct the National Institutes of Health to create a fund that could compensate these people for time lost from work and damaged careers.

Of course, we do not want every lab worker with a grudge to believe it's OK to impugn their enemies with the guarantee of an insurance payoff. Nor do we want to put bounties on the heads of Nobel laureates.

The fund ought to be administered by a panel of scientists empowered to consider claims by those who say they have suffered financial losses as a result of their whistle-blowing activities. Payment would only be available if charges of scientific misconduct or malfeasance are proven valid. Then, if the whistle-blowers can demonstrate that they have been persecuted, penalized or fired, the panel could award compensatory damages.

It should not be easy to obtain what might reasonably be called an "O'Toole award." But would-be whistle-blowers should know that our society encourages and appreciates the kind of honesty that Margot O'Toole showed in taking on the very people who had the power to make -- or, in her case, break -- a career.

Arthur Caplan is director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at D the University of Minnesota.

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