This editorial appeared in the 5 December 1991 issue of The New York Times.

Rough Justice for Dr. Baltimore

The renowned biologist David Baltimore has paid a harsh but necessary penalty for his efforts to whitewash a case of scientific fraud. A 1986 research paper prepared under his supervision was supported in part by data almost certainly fabricated by a colleague. The controversy over his handling of the affair has forced Dr. Baltimore, a Nobel laureate, to resign as president of Rockefeller University.

At first impression, the penalty may not seem to fit the crime. The research in question was carried out under Dr. Baltimore's general direction in Massachusetts five years ago, well before he ascended to the presidency of Rockefeller, a distinguished research institution in Manhattan.

But there is rough justice at work here, holding even one of the nation's pre-eminent scientists accountable. Dr. Baltimore's fate carries a warning to the scientific community that failure to confront serious charges about the integrity of research will no longer be tolerated.

There is not even the slightest hint that Dr. Baltimore himself fabricated data. But one of his co-authors on the research paper, Dr. Thereza Imanishi-Kari, has been accused by Federal investigators of misreporting some experiments and fabricating others, either as part of the original paper or in a desperate effort to save herself form subsequent investigations.

Dr. Baltimore's sins were that he signed two documents containing the fabricated data, failed to investigate charges of error and fraud, disparaged the junior scientist who first raised the issue and tried mightily to influence or stonewall other investigations. In an inexcusable abuse of his high standing in the scientific community, he marshaled hundreds of scientists to write letters to Congress or newspaper articles criticizing an investigation by Representative John Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, as political interference that would cause "a chilling of scientific research."

That line of attach fell apart as damming evidence emerged. The Secret Service found that laboratory notebooks had been doctored, and investigators at the National Institutes of Health concluded, in a draft report, that there had been fabrication and that Dr. Baltimore was remiss in ignoring the mounting evidence. Even he acknowledged in May that he had erred in "failing to heed the warnings," and retracted the paper.

In the end, with his support among top scientists eroding, he had little choice but to step down. A recent poll of senior faculty at Rockefeller found most no longer supported him. Two outstanding researchers left, and a longtime friend and collaborator resigned a top administrative post. Such distinguished scientists as Walter Gilbert, a Nobel laureate, and Paul Doty, emeritus professor of biochemistry at Harvard, publicly criticized him.

The challenge now is to pick up the pieces. Dr. Baltimore will apply his formidable talents to research on AIDS, an opportunity to redeem himself. Rockefeller University will search for a new president to carry on the rebuilding efforts begun by Dr. Baltimore. And the fraud case is still being investigated by a grand jury in Maryland and by the National Institutes of Health, so no final judgment on culpability has been rendered.

But the deeper judgment is clear: The scientific community should police itself more effectively. It should not take four Congressional hearings, two university inquiries, two investigations at the National Institutes of Health and a Federal grand jury to unravel a case that could have been settled years ago by Dr. Baltimore, had he been less interested in protecting his reputation and more determined to get at the truth.