BALTIMORE'S LEGACY: CONCERN ABOUT OVERSIGHT OF SCIENTISTS

Author: By Richard Saltus, Globe Staff

Date: 12/04/1991 Page: 67
Section: NATIONAL/FOREIGN

NEWS ANALYSIS

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 go away.

"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 suspicions.

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 institutions.

"People have been saying to me all day, 'that's two victories for Dingell,' " said Robert Rosenzweig, director of the American Association of Universities.

"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.

Last modified: Wed Sep 20 20:36:08 EDT 2000