BALTIMORE'S LEGACY: CONCERN ABOUT OVERSIGHT OF SCIENTISTS
Author: By Richard Saltus, Globe Staff
Nobel laureate David Baltimore's fall from power this week after a long
and stubborn defense of his role in a widely publicized scientific misconduct
case was more than a stunning personal defeat for the renowned scientist.
Not only was he unable to convince some of the most influential scientists
in his field -- several of them former close friends -- that he had done the
right thing when evidence of research fraud was brought to him five years ago;
but Baltimore also failed to rally broad support for his contention that
congressional scrutiny of such cases posed a threat to scientific freedom.
In the aftermath of Baltimore's decision Monday to resign as president of
New York's Rockefeller University, observers in and out of the scientific
community said the outcome of the intense clash between Baltimore and Rep.
John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who is a powerful overseer of research
funding, provided no clear lesson. One fact was obvious, however:
Congressional attention to the issue of scientific misconduct is not going to
"In the end, after everything was finished, it turned out that Dingell and
his committee were viewed as having served a very useful purpose," said James
Zwolenik, an assistant inspector general at the National Science Foundation.
Not all scientists would state it that positively. But some eminent
researchers said they had reluctantly come to agree with Dingell's relentless
probe of alleged fabrication of data in a research paper coauthored by
Baltimore, even though they had at first sided with the former Massachusetts
Institute of Technology biologist.
An investigation by the National Institutes of Health found, according to a
draft report, that a postdoctoral fellow manipulated data and that Baltimore
failed to take appropriate action when another scientist told him of her
Despite Baltimore's predictions, "the congressional threats didn't
materialize -- there hasn't been any explosion of star-chamber proceedings, so
I think that's not the real issue," said a scientist who has broken with
Baltimore over the case and asked not to be named.
Nevertheless, some scientists say there is an undercurrent of concern and
fear that their actions will come under constant scrutiny by congressional
investigators. If that is so, it is because the science establishment has not
yet demonstrated that it can police itself -- although many universities have
taken encouraging steps to deal with misconduct, said an aide to the House
committee on science, technology and space.
"The scientific community is no longer benefiting from the public view of
science as magic, or as the people in white coats who are the wizards of
progress," said the aide, speaking on condition he not be named.
But noting that Baltimore was the second university president to leave
office after tangling with Dingell, other observers saw some kind of pattern
in the making -- even if they were not certain what it signified.
Both Baltimore and Donald Kennedy, forced out as president of Stanford
University, had become targets of Dingell, whose subcommittee monitors
National Institutes of Health funding allocated to universities and research
"People have been saying to me all day, 'that's two victories for Dingell,'
" said Robert Rosenzweig, director of the American Association of
"But if anybody thinks there's a victory because two distinguished
scientists of the quality of David Baltimore and Donald Kennedy" have been
ousted, said Rosenzweig, "that's dead wrong. A real loss has been suffered."
Kennedy announced his resignation last July, after a Dingell-led
investigation found that the university had misused federal research funds.
Both presidents ultimately lost the support of their faculties, and
Rosenzweig said their departures showed the "degree of vulnerability" of
university presidents as universities are being seen more and more as
''economically important institutions."
Two decades ago, Rosenzweig said, when universities were far less dependent
on the federal government for research money, their presidents would have been
far less accountable -- and not nearly as visible.
It was not in his capacity as president of Rockefeller, but in his behavior
as a highly visible Nobel Prize-winning scientist and spokesman for the
research community that Baltimore ultimately disappointed many scientists who
had initially rushed to his defense.