BALTIMORE ADMITS AN 'EXCESS OF TRUST'
Author: By Judy Foreman, Globe Staff
In the closest he has come yet to acknowledging responsibility in a
research fraud case, Nobel laureate David Baltimore now says he was "too
willing to accept" the explanations of a colleague found by a government panel
to have fabricated her data, according to documents provided to the
Globe yesterday by government sources.
Baltimore, who is president of Rockefeller University in New York, also
said he "did too little to seek an independent verification" of the
colleague's data and conclusions and was "too willing to excuse discrepancies
as mere sloppiness."
In a statement submitted to the National Institutes of Health, Baltimore
also offered a formal apology to the whistleblower whose questions triggered
five years' worth of investigations by university and government panels, and
extended an olive branch to Rep. John Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who has
spearheaded an aggressive congressional investigation into the case.
"For their work, scientists are entrusted with public funds," he wrote. ''I
have come to better appreciate the legitimate role of government as the public
sponsor of scientific research and to respect its duty to protect the public
interest and hold the scientific community accountable for its stewardship of
This is in contrast to Baltimore's statements in May 1988, when the affair
was just bubbling to national attention. At that time, Baltimore wrote a
''Dear Colleague" letter to scientists across the country, urging them to
support him against Dingell, saying, "What we are undergoing is a harbinger of
threats to scientific communication and scientific freedom. The halls of
Congress are not the place to determine scientific truth or falsity."
In a short statement yesterday, Dingell said he agreed "with Mr. Baltimore
that we need a major cleanup of the way science handles matters such as fraud.
I very much regret that reaching these conclusions has been so long and so
painful for some."
In March, an investigatory panel from the National Institutes of Health
concluded in a draft report that a former colleague of Baltimore's, Thereza
Imanishi-Kari, now an assistant professor at the Tufts University School of
Medicine, had fabricated data related to a 1986 paper she published with a
number of co-authors, including Baltimore.
The draft report did not accuse Baltimore himself of fraud. But it said
Baltimore's continued defense of the paper in the face of mounting criticism
about its veracity was "difficult to comprehend" and "deeply troubling."
Baltimore's latest statement was submitted Thursday to the Office of
Scientific Integrity at the National Institutes of Health as a rebuttal to the
draft report. Baltimore's rebuttal, along with that of Imanishi-Kari, will be
considered by the NIH investigators before the final report is issued in early
In his statement, Baltimore asked that several accusations made against him
by the NIH panel in its draft report be excluded from the final report. He
said there was "no basis for the strongly worded attack."
For instance, in the draft report, the NIH panel said that in a meeting
with the investigators, Baltimore said that if data Imanishi-Kari supplied to
the NIH was fabricated, she was "driven" to do it by the investigators. He
also said, "In my mind you can make up anything that you want in your
notebooks, but you can't call it fraud if it wasn't published."
Baltimore said in his rebuttal to the Office of Scientific Integrity that
those comments were made "in the heat of the moment. . . . My remarks to OSI
were not at all intended to condone fraud or to sanction the submission of
misleading materials to NIH.
"In sum," he wrote, "I believe that OSI's findings regarding my conduct
should be amended and that the final report should be tempered in light of
In his statement, Baltimore also sought to distance himself from Imanishi-
"I wish to state," Baltimore wrote, "that if Dr. Imanishi-Kari did falsify
data or make misrepresentations, I had no knowledge of the misconduct."
He added, "I recognize that I may have been blinded to the full
implications of the mounting evidence by an excess of trust, and I have
learned from this experience that one must temper trust with a healthy dose of
Both Margot O'Toole, the whistleblower, and Imanishi-Kari, through her
lawyer, Bruce Singal, took issue with a number of Baltimore's statements.
For instance, Baltimore wrote, "I commend Dr. O'Toole for her courage and
her determination, and I regret and apologize to her for my failure to act
vigorously enough in my investigation of her doubts." He added he has
''tremendous respect for Dr. O'Toole, personally and as a scientist." In a
1987 letter to investigators he referred to her as a "discontented
Asked to comment, O'Toole, who had her own copy of Baltimore's statement,
responded in her own statement: "I appreciate Dr. Baltimore's words of praise
for me, but his apology does not go to the heart of the question. . . . During
our meeting on June 16, 1986," -- just after the paper was published -- "Dr.
Imanishi-Kari candidly admitted that she had not obtained results reported in
"She said that she had made mistakes by reporting data that had not been
obtained. Dr. Baltimore told me that 'this kind of thing' was not unusual and
that he would take no corrective action. He told me that he personally would
oppose any effort I made to get the paper corrected," wrote O'Toole, who lost
her job and her house after she blew the whistle on the research team. She is
now employed as a researcher at Genetics Institute in Cambridge.
Of Baltimore's "failure to act vigorously enough," O'Toole said, "Dr.
Baltimore's 1986 investigation was complete enough to discover that my
objections were substantiated. However, he did not act on them."
Singal objected to Baltimore's statement about his "excess of trust" in
While there is much in Baltimore's statement with which Imanishi-Kari
agrees, said Singal, "the difficulty with Dr. Baltimore's statement is that
what it doesn't emphasize is that this investigation has not been thorough or
"Yes, there has to be protection for whistleblowers, but where is the
protection for the accused? There's no due process, no right to question
witnesses, no right to see the evidence against the accused. It's like a Star
Chamber proceeding in which the accused has no rights.
"He talks about excessive trust in Thereza -- we think in light of the
deficiencies in the NIH process, it may be that there should be less trust
placed in draft and preliminary findings and a healthier dose of skepticism
toward those findings," Singal said.