Author: By David Warsh, Globe Staff

Date: 03/31/1991 Page: A1


At any given time, society has its special heroes and villains. The Gulf War provided a glimpse of a stunning reversal: Suddenly the military was up and the press was down. Business executives know well these vicissitudes: Entrepreneurs were good guys during the 1980s, investment bankers were bad. Manipulating these valuations is what politicians do.

One of the most interesting trends in moral fashion has to do with the current contest among politicians and journalists over the image of science. It popped into the news last week when a National Institutes of Health report, leaked to the newspapers, accused a Tufts University reasearcher of fraud.

The name of Thereza Imanishi-Kari, a Japanese-Brazilian immunologist, is hardly a household word. But David Baltimore is, at least among scientific
families. The Nobel laureate, now president of Rockefeller University, was the colleague who went to considerable lengths to defend Imanishi-Kari from charges of having cooked up an experiment while at MIT.

What happened is this. Six authors published a paper in 1986 suggesting an unexpected response by a mouse's immune system after the rearrangement of a gene, based on an experiment performed by Imanishi-Kari. Others were unable to replicate the results, so immunology took another turn and the paper passed into the limbo known as irreproducible results -- but not before a post-doc biologist named Margot O'Toole, working in Imanishi-Kari's lab, complained that her boss's work was sloppy.

No big deal, or so the senior scientists thought. As The Washington Post wisely put it last week, "Medical research labs tend to be as rigidly hierarchical as Navy ships, and criticism from the lower ranks gets much the same kind of reception." At issue was the automatic trust of one another's work that is required among scientists: A couple of university investigations gave short shrift to O'Toole's complaint, and defended Imanishi-Kari's right to make mistakes.

The case then followed the familiar pattern. The whistleblower, disregarded, went to Congress, found sympathetic ears in Ned Feder and Walter Stewart, the self-styled "fraud-busters" of the National Institutes of Health, and eventually their patron, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Dingell and his staff battled the MIT scientists with increasing bitterness for four years. They may have first stampeded the chaotic Imanishi-Kari into manufacturing evidence for her notebooks, long after the fact to support her published claim, and then enlisted the Secret Service to prove that portions of the notebooks were

In any event, the trust evaporated, the preliminary institutes report vaporized her credibility and Baltimore last week withdrew the contested paper. Margot O'Toole, whose previous fame had rested on having been the dogged witness to the alleged 1985 beating of a Chinese man by a Boston Police officer, turned out to have been right.

Now this would be a relatively happy ending -- if it were the ending. After all, every community, even relatively competitive and self-governing ones like science and the press, need these external checks and balances. And the recent experience of Cal Tech shows the effect of these altered Post-Baltimore incentives. When one post-doc biologist accused another of scientific improprieties (and was counterattacked in turn) in the giant lab of Leroy Hood, senior scientists leapt as if stung: A pair of papers were retracted and tough-minded investigations began in about 24 hours.

But there are three very ominous aspects to the affair.

The first is Dingell's scorched-earth policy. Whatever the case for Imanishi-Kari's being hounded from big-time science, David Baltimore's big crime is that he stood up to Dingell, decrying his intrusion into molecular biological affairs as ham-handed. Dingell's staff has fought its case in the newspapers throughout. Now Dingell reportedly wants a grand jury in Maryland to indict Baltimore and Imanishi-Kari on criminal charges. You've got to go back to Sen. Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee to find such thuggish congressional behavior.

Second, the MIT affair doesn't offer an illuminating picture of the problem of fraud in science. You have only to consider the other two major cases now on the table to see what a sideshow the Baltimore case is. The "cold fusion" episode in Utah, for example, shows the self-correcting mechanisms of science to good effect.

When other scientists were unable to reproduce the successes reported by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, they nearly pecked to death the American chemist and his English counterpart, even though there was reason to believe they had merely deluded themselves, an easy thing to do, not committed calculated fraud. The scandalous behavior was almost entirely on the part of the university administrators, consultants and government officials rushing to capitalize on the scientists' claims. No congressional inquisition was needed to put physical chemistry back on track.

The case of Robert Gallo bears much more heavily on the question of outside scrutiny of science. The senior National Cancer Institute scientist has been accused practically at book-length by Chicago Tribune investigative reporter, John Crewdson, of either sloppy or chicanerous science in claiming credit for first isolating the virus behind AIDS -- and with engaging in a series of high-level heavily lawyered governmental coverups in settling matters with French investigators who claimed to have been the first to have achieved the same results.

It's a charge that's taken with deadly seriousness in high science, though it is bitterly contested by Gallo, who has written a defensive book and even hired a public-relations specialist. A pair of NIH panels are currently investigating, with Dingell looking over their shoulders, naturally, and their reports could lift the lid on a mysterious situation at the very center of government-sponsored science.

Third and worst, the attack on the MIT lab is part of a larger and quite sinister pattern: With his vast investigative powers, Dingell appears to be taking on the private research universities in general. He has just finished pistol-whipping Donald Kennedy, Stanford University's president, over his university's sloppy apportionment of government grants to pay university operating expenses. Now he apparently wants the head of Rockefeller University indicted. His investigators are coming next to Harvard and MIT to examine their overhead accounting; Johns Hopkins, the University of Chicago and Columbia are on the list, too. It is one of those periodic attempts to revalue reputations: In this case, to damage higher education to enhance congressional esteem.

At stake is nothing less than the future relative independence of the private research university -- and the leadership of American education. It is true that the Ivy League schools and their cousins have something of a history of arrogance toward political authority. Naturally they enjoy being on top. And as long as they remain at the pinnacle of the American intellectual establishment, the public universities located west of the Alleghenies and south of the Mason-Dixon line can't hope to dominate the training of the next generation of PhDs.

For all its faults, however, the private research university is arguably the most successful institution in the country, the formidable engine of its economic growth, and the protector of its most humane values. The fact that these institutions are largely isolated from the political process is surely a key to understanding their success.

Assaults on the university are nothing new, of course. In recent years, they've been more common from conservatives. There is the commotion about the maintenance of the "politically correct," for instance. There is the Justice Department's antitrust inquiry on the universities' pricing policies. It is hard to imagine that either of these offensives will do much long-run harm.

But this new attack is from regional interests in Congress, as much as from the political left. The specter of Dingell trying to bring the great universities to their knees through intimidation is sobering. Never mind that, thanks to the enormous reach of his congressional committee, Dingell is also deep into insurance regulation, pharmaceutical licensing, securities markets, and the telecommunications industry -- all with the same Big Brother philosophy of hands-on, turn-the-clock-back regulation. The damage he's doing to American prestige in basic science alone is quite enough.

Last modified: Wed Sep 20 20:33:53 EDT 2000