Exoneration of scientist casts doubt on fraud agency Decadelong case pitted Nobel laureate against powerful congressman


As scientists absorb the decision by a federal appeals panel late last week dismissing all the charges of scientific misconduct against Dr. Theresa Imanishi-Kari, many are asking how the process for handling allegations of fraud in science could have got so badly off track.

The decadelong case has roused high passions among scientists, some of whom saw it as a barometer of the public's apparent hostility toward science, while others were alarmed at the way the case had turned into a political confrontation with Congress.

One reason for the drawn-out and divisive nature of the case was the imperfect procedures of the new federal office to investigate biomedical fraud.

Another was the high-profile conflict between Rep. John D. Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who was then a House committee chairman, and Dr. David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate biologist and former colleague who defended Imanishi-Kari. This tension politicized every stage of the long inquiry process.

The unanimous decision by the three-member adjudications panel of the Department of Health and Human Services is a complete exoneration for Imanishi-Kari, an immigrant scientist from Brazil.

It also vindicates the long and eventually lonely campaign waged in her defense by Baltimore, a struggle that forced him to relinquish the presidency of Rockefeller University, one of the leading posts in academic science.

Despite the painstakingly detailed decision, several of Imanishi-Kari's critics continue to believe that the discrepancies in the disputed experiment arose from concocted data.

The accusations against Imanishi-Kari arose at a time when Congress had become impatient with the inability of universities to handle cases of scientific fraud.

Dingell, who headed the House Energy and Commerce Committee, took up the issue, treating scientists with the same forcefulness and disdain he had used with overcharging military contractors. He made the Imanishi-Kari affair a test case.

Although Baltimore, who is now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was never accused of fraud, he was drawn into the case because he was a co-author of Imanishi-Kari's disputed paper on the immune system.

His standing up to Dingell in several public confrontations was a spectacle that both exhilarated and terrified scientists who supported him because of Dingell's power over the scientific budget.

Several reviews of the disputed paper had found nothing seriously wrong with it. But the National Institutes of Health ordered Baltimore to publish a minor correction because some information was not fully in accord with data in Imanishi-Kari's notebook.

The question then arose whether these discrepancies were due to mere sloppiness or something worse.

At Dingell's request, the Secret Service performed a forensic analysis of Imanishi-Kari's notebooks, concluding that crucial data had been falsified because certain records indicated they must have created later than Imanishi-Kari said. Baltimore's campaign was dealt a setback. His supporters wavered and Baltimore eventually left Rockefeller University.

A second major reason for the tortuous nature of the affair lay in the peculiar constitution of an office at the National Institutes of Health that was set up, at Dingell's insistence, after the allegations against Imanishi-Kari, to investigate scientists accused of misconduct.

Although the office was to serve the role of prosecutor in cases that could effectively banish scientists from their profession, it was designed by scientists who had no experience in legal affairs or due process.

Pub Date: 6/25/96

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