Trouble in the house of science

July 08, 1996|By Daniel S. Greenberg

WASHINGTON -- Many scientists and commentators have properly deplored the decade-long miseries inflicted on Nobel laureate David Baltimore and his colleague Thereza Imanishi-Kari by an inept and congressionally badgered government system for policing scientific misconduct. Generally omitted, however, in the tributes to the pair are relevant matters that diminish their saintly glow.

Dr. Imanishi-Kari, an immunologist at Tufts University, was accused of fakery in a 1986 paper co-authored with Dr. Baltimore and others. The accuser was a young scientist in Dr. Imanishi-Kari's laboratory who said her complaints were shrugged off. Dr. Baltimore was not accused of wrongdoing. But because of his renown and staunch defense of his colleague, it became ''the Baltimore case.''

For nearly a decade, it ran on inconclusively, with one investigation after another and characteristically roughneck congressional hearings in 1988, 1989 and 1990 chaired by the then-formidable Rep. John Dingell, who charged the government was soft on scientific fraud.

In 1992, Dr. Baltimore resigned the presidency of Rockefeller University after an 18-month tenure, reportedly because the faculty feared his presence would chill their chances for government grants.

Scientific limbo

Deprived of federal funds while the inquiries dragged on, Dr. Imanishi-Kari lingered in scientific limbo. In 1994, the Office of Research Integrity in the Department of Health and Human Services charged her with 19 counts of scientific misconduct. She appealed to the supreme court of medical science, the HHS Departmental Appeals Board. On June 21, the department cleared her of all charges, and in the process, derided the government's case as ''irrelevant'' and ''inconsistent,'' among other failings.

Reflecting the views of many scientists, Maxine Singer, a prominent researcher, termed the case ''an American tragedy,'' while New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis called Congressman Dingell ''the principal villain of this ugly tale of persecution.''

Yes, but. The long and dismal record also shows failures elsewhere that didn't come up in court. Thus, in 1989, the director of the National Institutes of Health, James B. Wyngaarden, chastised Dr. Baltimore for his role in the case.

Though the allegations about the paper were made in 1986, Dr. Wyngaarden stated in a letter to Baltimore, ''the co-authors never met to consider seriously the allegations or to re-examine the data to determine whether there might be some basis for the allegations. Such an analysis on the part of the paper's authors, followed by appropriate action to correct such errors of oversight, may well have made a full investigation unnecessary.''

Unnoted in the tributes to Dr. Baltimore and company was the appeals board's own denunciation of the research paper they defended for a decade.

''Rife with errors''

The paper ''as a whole is rife with errors of all sorts,'' the board stated, adding that ''Many of them are obvious to a careful reader.'' Observing that corrections had been published for several such errors, the board noted, however, that ''There are additional errors evident on the face of the paper, some of which, despite all these years and layers of review, have never previously been pointed out or corrected. Responsibility for the pattern of carelessness in writing and editing of this paper must be shared by all the participants'' -- meaning Dr. Baltimore, Dr. Imanishi-Kari, the other co-authors and journal reviewers and editors.

Finally, what accounts for the Olympian incompetence of the Office of Research Integrity, which has fumbled a succession of major fraud cases before the appeals board? The answer is that, oblivious of a mountain of troubling evidence, the science establishment insists that fraud in science is a rarity that's been overblown by failed scientists and opportunistic politicians and journalists.

As a result, the policing of scientific misconduct has been assigned to bureaucratic drones, who have compiled a wondrous record of legal reversals and administrative pratfalls.

Numerous surveys of working scientists and graduate students produce a fairly squalid picture of ethics in the lab. The mandarins, however, insist that everything is under control and that where it isn't, local authorities must be entrusted with maintaining standards.

After time out for celebrating the vindication of Drs. Baltimore and Imanishi-Kari, the establishment is back to the great task of the moment: wrangling over a new definition of scientific misconduct, a topic that has engaged countless committee hours over the past two years, with no end in sight.

Daniel S. Greenberg is editor and publisher of the newsletter Science & Government Report.

Pub Date: 7/08/96

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