US PANEL ORDERS CRIMINAL PROBE OF EX-MIT RESEARCHER
Author: By Peter G. Gosselin , Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- In a move likely to scare and anger the scientific community,
a congressional panel called yesterday for a criminal inquiry into allegations
that a Boston researcher falsified data in connection with a paper that she
wrote with David Baltimore, a Nobel Prize winner.
The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and
investigations acted after Secret Service agents told a hearing of the panel
that as much as one-third of a laboratory notebook belonging to Thereza
Imanishi-Kari, a pathologist at Tufts University School of Medicine, had been
falsified and that Imanishi-Kari's previous explanations for problems with the
notebook were inconsistent or "impossible."
The notebook contains data used in connection with a 1986 scientific paper
that Imanishi-Kari published with Baltimore and four others when she was at
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The Secret Service testimony and the panel's decision to seek a criminal
investigation outraged many of Imanishi-Kari's Boston colleagues, a dozen of
whom attended yesterday's hearing, and seemed to catch her lawyer by surprise.
"This is the furthest thing from a criminal case," Bruce A. Singal, her
lawyer, said after the session. "We're appalled."
"I think that it's a clear attempt to smear her," Baltimore said in a
telephone interview later. He did not attend the session.
The subcommittee's decision to seek a criminal probe dramatically escalates
the conflict between Baltimore, the influential MIT biology professor who will
soon become president of Rockefeller University in New York, and the panel's
chairman, Rep. John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat.
Dingell has sought to use the dispute to publicize the problem of
scientific fraud, which he views as extensive, and to attack universities'
methods of policing it. Baltimore has sought to rally scientific colleagues
by arguing that the issue should be freedom for scientists from political
The battle between the two men is over an important, but highly
specialized, paper on genetic control of the immune system published in the
scientific journal Cell.
The subcommittee had already drawn protests from scientists by calling in
the Secret Service to apply techniques normally reserved for counterfeiters to
Imanishi-Kari's notebooks. In testimony last year, agents said that several
pages of one notebook were produced long after the dates listed on them,
indicating they had been falsified.
In her testimony last year, Imanishi-Kari contested the Secret Service
allegations, saying that the difference between the dates appearing on the
pages and those assigned to them by agents was due to sloppiness and the
hectic pace of research. She said that she often was too busy to write up
experiments when they were performed. But she said the data from the
experiments were preserved on narrow computer printouts that she would
eventually paste into her notebooks and about which she would eventually jot
Following her testimony, Dingell ordered the Secret Service to begin
studying the printouts, and yesterday the agents said that many were not
produced on the dates under which they appear in the notebook. Under
questioning from subcommittee members, agents said as many as 30 tapes were
''not authentic" and appeared to have been falsified.
"Does it appear to you that somebody cut and pasted" the printouts "to
fabricate an experiment?" asked Rep. Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon.
"It has that appearance," said John W. Hargett, the Secret Service's chief
Hargett said that agents dated the tapes largely by looking at the
printouts of other MIT scientists who used the same laboratory machine as
Imanishi-Kari and by comparing the darkness of the type on the pages. As the
ink on the ribbon in the machine faded, the other scientists' printouts became
lighter, Hargett said, but many of Imanishi-Kari's did not.
Both Imanishi-Kari and Singal attacked the Secret Service findings
yesterday, saying that the Tufts scientist had never contended that the
notebook dates represented when the experiments were done. But neither could
fully explain what the dates did represent.
Singal sought to downplay the importance of the contested printouts, saying
that none contained data that were included in the Cell paper. But
subcommittee staff members disputed that viewpoint, saying that some of the
data had been published in the original paper and some in a clarifying letter.
Singal also found himself in a dispute with officials of the National
Institutes of Health, the federal agency that funded most of the research
behind the disputed paper.
Suzanne W. Hadley, deputy director of an NIH division in charge of
investigating allegations of scientific misconduct, told the subcommittee that
the federal agency recently terminated one of Imanishi-Kari's two research
grants because of questions about her "fitness" as a researcher.
Subcommittee members said they would ask the US attorney in Baltimore to
investigate whether Imanishi-Kari lied during testimony last year before the
panel, sought to obstruct justice and filed false documents with the
subcommittee and the NIH.
Breckinridge Willcox, US attorney for Maryland, said in a telephone
interview, "Anything that John Dingell sends us, we'll be glad to look at."
Two years ago, Willcox's office won what is widely considered the first case
in which a scientist was convicted of criminal wrongdoing for falsifying data.
Stephen E. Breuning, a University of Pittsburgh psychologist, gained a
national reputation in the early 1980s for advocating increased use of
stimulants to treat mentally retarded children. But he was convicted in
November 1988 of faking the experiments that supported his claim. He was
sentenced to 60 days in a halfway house and five years' probation.