Scientific academies urge creation of panel to oversee ethics, pursue fraud

April 23, 1992|By Marlene Cimons | Marlene Cimons,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Suggesting that instances of scientific fraud may be significantly underreported, three prestigious national scientific academies called yesterday for a tougher system to identify such cases, investigate and resolve them.

To accomplish the task, the academies recommended the appointment of a national review board to oversee ethical matters and pursue allegations of fraud.

"The pressures for success are inexorable," said Edward E. David, science adviser to former President Richard M. Nixon and chairman of the panel that compiled the report. "Personal advancement, economic survival and political advantage often are at stake, even as personal curiosity and the joy of discovery still are widespread. In this climate of mixed motivations, it is essential to act responsibly and to strengthen research ethics."

The recommendations were contained in a report by the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Engineering and their affiliate, the Institute of Medicine. Congressionally chartered, the private organizations advise the federal government on matters of science and technology. While their proposals are not binding, they typically wield considerable influence.

The issue of scientific misconduct and fraud has received considerable attention in recent years because of

several highly publicized cases and the manner in which they were investigated.

Among them were a controversy involving a 1986 paper in the journal Cell, in which the lead researcher was accused of making up data to support her conclusions.

The episode received considerable attention because it involved Nobel Prize winner David Baltimore, who had lent his name to the paper although he had not conducted any of the research, and who vigorously defended the researcher's work. Ultimately, the paper was retracted, and Mr. Baltimore later resigned as president of Rockefeller University in New York City.

Traditionally, scientists have relied on an honor system and on the operation of self-regulating checks and balances, among them, review by their scientific peers. But in recent years, largely as a result of some of these highly publicized cases, Congress and federal agencies have tried to help establish policies and procedures to monitor scientists and facilities that receive federal funding.

The panel recommended that a special scientific board be established to gather data on scientific ethics and misconduct, and to help institutions develop policies and deal with allegations. The board would not become involved in resolving actual cases, but would collect information on episodes of misconduct and make the data available to the public, the panel said.

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