No Thanks for Fighting Science Fraud

DANIEL S. GREENBERG

June 16, 1993|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington.--Distrust, even hate, are common ingredients in relations between big bureaucracies and employees who bear the graceless label, ''whistle-blowers.''

Regarded as traitors or glory-seekers by their bosses and co-workers, whistle-blowers claim allegiance to higher values than loyalty to the team. It's a tough role, and few come out intact.

Recognition of these elements is essential for understanding a whistle-blowing spectacle at the world's greatest medical research center, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in Bethesda.

On May 10, Walter Stewart, a career scientist at NIH, commenced a hunger strike. The issue: a job reassignment. But actually, a lot more was at stake.

Over a month later, weak but still resolute, Mr. Stewart continued to subsist on water, while supporters pleaded with him to relent, and not a few onlookers dismissed him as mentally unstable.

A newcomer to Mr. Stewart's peculiar role in scientific affairs would unavoidably be mystified. But in the tight-knit world of science, where he has become a well-known figure over the past decade, there's no puzzlement about Walter Stewart: He's regarded as either a full-fledged, miracle-working saint in the cause of scientific purity -- or a shifty, unprincipled charlatan.

Now 48, boyish and hyper-enthusiastic on all topics, Mr. Stewart, a chemist, and his NIH partner, Ned Feder, a 65-year-old physician, used to work on the nervous system of snails.

Then, in the early 1980s, as a sideline, they began to study the honesty of science. They broke into public view with a bombshell analysis of the accuracy of the scientific data in a series of previously published articles on heart research.

At first, efforts to publish their findings drew threats of libel suits that led to two Congressional hearings. Their report, eventually published in the prestigious journal, Nature, demonstrated that the heart research papers were riddled with mistakes big and little, ranging from arithmetic errors to flaws in logic and fact.

The scientific establishment was outraged -- not by the errors, but by the disclosure of scientific fallibility to a trusting public. Encouraged by the results, Stewart and Feder, abandoning snails, turned full-time attention to issues of scientific integrity.

Tolerated by their chiefs at NIH, they soon became a beacon for scientists nationwide who felt the sacred rules of the game were being violated by chiselers, often their laboratory supervisors.

For example, in 1986, when a young postdoctoral scientist challenged the accuracy of a breakthrough scientific claim by a team that included Nobel laureate David Baltimore, she was told essentially to keep quiet.

Stewart and Feder analyzed the lab records, concluded she was right, and embarrassed NIH into conducting an investigation that eventually upheld the young scientist's conclusions. Other cases more or less followed that pattern.

In the process, however, the self-assigned fraud-hunters aroused animosity in establishment ranks. Many wondered why NIH, short of funds for cancer research, was staking a pair who seemed dedicated to undermining public confidence in science.

The answer is that the NIH management didn't like them at all, but the scientific culture allows its workers a lot of leeway.

Stewart and Feder argued that maintaining the purity of science is an integral part of advancing scientific knowledge. They contended that NIH's own fraud-detection system was soft on scientific crime.

Their investigations drew favorable congressional interest. And even some of their critics conceded that they had alerted the scientific community to neglected problems of integrity. Nonetheless, ill will toward them grew with each disclosure of scientific delinquency.

This spring, they unwittingly set themselves up for retribution by getting involved in a plagiarism controversy remote from science, a dispute over a biography of Abraham Lincoln. Mr. Stewart argued that he came into the case to calibrate his ''plagiarism machine,'' a computerized rig for comparing texts.

But the NIH management had enough. Both were told that on May 10, their voluminous files of scientific misdeeds would be sealed up, and they were to report to conventional duties at NIH.

On that date, Walter Stewart commenced his hunger strike, declaring that the reassignment was arbitrary and retaliatory. The two protested that they were in the midst of studying serious misconduct cases ignored by government investigators.

Mr. Stewart said he would fast until NIH allowed him and Dr. Feder to return to fraud-hunting duties. A month later, he was still adamant, and so was NIH.

Outsiders will be struck by the irrationality of this spectacle. But, as noted at the outset, relations between big bureaucracies and whistle-blowers can be ugly.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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