This editorial appeared in the 26 March 1991 issue of The New York Times.

A Scientific Watergate?

Five years after disturbing questions were raised about a research paper written in part by the Nobel laureate David Baltimore, the celebrated case is finally moving toward a verdict Federal investigators have concluded, in a draft report, that the paper contained fraudulent data and did not accurately reflect the laboratory experirnents on which it was supposedly based. Worse yet, data subsequently published by the Baltimore group to amend and justify its original paper were almost certainly fabricated.

The verdict may well destroy the career of the scientist accused of the misrepresentations and fabrications, Dr. Theresa Imanishi-Kari. But the most damning indictment should be lodged against the scientific community's weak-kneed mechanisms for investigating fraud. Faced with stonewalling by Dr. Baltimore, one of the nation's most prominent scientists, several investigative panels seemed more intent on smothering bad publicity than digging out the truth.

In this respect, the Baltimore case is reminiscent of the Watergate scandal. Just as Watergate started with a "third-rate burglary" and ended in a huge cover-up, so the Baltimore case started with apparent fraud by a single scientist and soon led to a widespread denial of wrongdoing by almost everyone in a position to right the wrong.

The tale starts with a scientific paper published in 1986 that appeared to announce a revolutionary finding with important implications for the immune system. It was written by a team of six scientists, headed by Dr. Baltimore, who was then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is now the president of Rockefeller University.

The experiments purported to show that when one strain of mice was injected with genes from another strain, their native genes were -forced:to produce antibodies very like those produced by the injected genes. That kind of influence by one type of gene on another had never before been seen. And now, it appears, it was probably not seen by Dr. Baltimore's team either.

The first hint that something was amiss came from a junior scientist, Dr. Margot O'Toole, who accidentally discovered that the results published in the paper did not jibe with 17 pages of Dr. ImanishiKari's laboratory notes that had fallen into her hands. A graduate student independently became suspicious. But neither got satisfaction when they tried to get corrective action from academic and scientific leaders.

Had the case not been dragged into public view by a fraud-hunting gadfly at the National Institutes of Health, Walter Stewart, and a Congressional committee headed by Representative John Dingell, the truth might never have emerged.

The initial investigations of Dr. O'Toole's complaints smacked of an old-boy network drawing up the wagons to protect scientific reputations. Investigations at Tufts University and M.I.T. found no fraud or even major error. The National Institutes of Health appointed an investigating panel with close ties to Dr. Baltimore. Even after the panel was reconstituted to mollify critics, it produced a pussyfooting report finding no evidence of misconduct despite the fact that an experiment had been reported that was never actually performed.

Only after Congress became involved did the N.I.H. begin to display some backbone. Its new Office of Scientific Investigations produced the gritty and damning report that finally calls a fabrication a fabrication.

Dr. Baltimore has, from the start seemed more intent on squelching inquiry that getting to the bottom of the charges. Although he has not himself been accused of fraud, he signed two documents- the original paper and a follow-up correction- containing data now deemed to have been fabricated by Dr. Imanishi-Kari.

Dr. Baltimore also belittled Dr. O'Toole as a "discontented" postdoctoral fellow, making her virtually unemployable for several years. And he orchestrated a chorus of support from sympathetic colleagues by sending a letter to 400 scientists warning that Congressional intervention could "cripple American science."

Dr. Baltimore has made enormous contributions to American science; he won a Nobel Prize in 1975, built up a major biology institute at M.I.T. and contributed to the development of national policy on AIDS. But his decision to tough out the allegations of wrongdoing instead of meeting them openly has ultimately harmed the reputation of the profession he so brilliantly represents.