Author: By Judy Foreman, Globe Staff

Date: 05/04/1991 Page: 1

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 public funds."

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 June.

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 these responses."

In his statement, Baltimore also sought to distance himself from Imanishi- Kari.

"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 skepticism."

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 postdoctoral fellow."

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 the paper.

"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 Imanishi-Kari.

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 fair.

"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.

Last modified: Wed Sep 20 20:37:36 EDT 2000