The New York Times

April 12, 1991, Friday, Late Edition - Final

Section A; Page 29; Column 1; Editorial Desk

The Whistle-Blower and the Train Wreck

By Margot O'Toole


After five years of confusion and dispute, the facts of what has come to be called the Baltimore case have finally become public. A National Institutes of Health draft report has found that the putative evidence for the paper that started the controversy was fabricated and called Dr. David Baltimore's defense of that paper "deeply troubling."

The dispute continues, however, because the debate on what lessons should be learned is only beginning. I would be disappointed if scientists were to continue to view the matter as an invasion of laboratories by politicians rather than as a failure of scientists to take their self-regulatory responsibilities seriously.

I inadvertently started the conflict, and watching it develop has been like watching a slow-motion train wreck. In 1986, as a postdoctoral fellow in immunology at M.I.T., I found out that a paper on gene transplants had serious inaccuracies. The study had been published by, among others, Dr. Baltimore, a Nobelist, and my supervisor, Dr. Thereza Imanishi-Kari. A series of experiments described in the paper had not been performed, and others were not done as stated.

After trying and failing to deal with the matter unofficially, I went through official channels at M.I.T. I expected that, unless the authors could rebut the evidence, the paper would be retracted -- the normal scientific standard. A retraction can be done with dignity, takes only a few lines in a journal and need not have disastrous consequences. The authors could not explain away my evidence, but they would not issue a retraction. The matter would have ended there had it not been for Walter Stewart and Dr. Ned Feder of the National Institutes of Health. They heard of the case and asked me to send them my evidence. They found that the paper had serious inaccuracies, and asked the authors to explain.

Dr. Baltimore gave a curious reply. In effect he claimed the freedom to ignore prima facie evidence that his paper was at best highly questionable, at worst fraudulent. He called on other scientists to help him defend this newly defined "freedom."

Thus an isolated scientific dispute was made to look like a political battle. Many scientists supported him without examining the evidence.

Eventually the N.I.H. appointed a panel to settle the matter. But this attempt at self-regulation was discredited when it was discovered that two of the three panel members had ties to Dr. Baltimore. As a result of this apparent conflict of interest, Representative John D. Dingell became involved. A second panel failed to subject the questioned materials to authentication. Mr. Dingell then produced evidence from his own probe establishing that the subpoenaed lab records examined by the panel had been compiled long after the experiments were purportedly done. It was only then, three years after I first presented my evidence at M.I.T., that the investigation began in earnest.

Last month, five years after the matter was first brought to Dr. Baltimore's attention, the draft report concluded that materials surrendered by Dr. Imanishi-Kari under Congressional subpoena were "fraudulent." Dr. Baltimore then announced his intention to retract the paper.

I was saddened to hear eminent scientists reacting as if the implications of this were primarily political. They said they are threatened by tighter regulation. But the Baltimore case shows that the real threat comes from within the scientific community, from a failure to adhere to traditional values of accountability and intellectual independence.

Scientists are the only people who can redress this failure. They should analyze the facts, reaffirm professional standards and recognize the trouble that ensues when these standards are ignored. This is not an abstract ideal. This is common sense.

Margot O'Toole is a cancer researcher at a biotechnology company.