Monday, December 12, 1994 ; Page A22

THE LONGEST-running and most visible scientific misconduct case in recent memory, involving a researcher on the team of Nobel Prize-winning scientist David Baltimore, finally ground to a close last week with the levying of a heavy penalty -- 10 years' ineligibility for federal research grants -- against the researcher, Thereza Imanishi-Kari. In an irony of political timing, the conclusion of the case that permanently besmirched Mr. Baltimore's reputation and cost him the presidency of a research institution came just when the man who made the case a career-breaker was losing his own empire.

We speak, of course, of Michigan Rep. John Dingell, longtime chairman of the powerful oversight and investigations subcommittee that investigated Ms. Imanishi-Kari and Mr. Baltimore in 1988 and that sought -- with considerable success -- to turn them into symbols of an arrogant scientific establishment averse to oversight and impervious to criticism from outside. That the case had little in the end to do with the real incidence of serious research fraud and may even have helped derail less-polemical efforts got lost in an increasingly complicated and acrimonious investigation that ended up bringing in the Secret Service to evaluate, with advanced forensic methods, whether marks in Ms. Imanishi-Kari's lab notebook had been made before the date cited.

Scientific misconduct became such an issue in the 1980s not because it was rampant -- though wild estimates got tossed around -- but because oversight of the large sums of federal research money going to scientists was ineffective and scientists themselves too often dismissive of complaints from outside. That was the burden of the charge against Dr. Baltimore, who was never himself accused of misconduct but who ran a lab in which accusations against Dr. Imanishi-Kari had not only been ignored but had led to what the accuser, researcher Margot O'Toole, claimed was retaliation.

The subcommittee, tipped to the complaint by whistleblowers it later brought on staff, summoned Mr. Baltimore to testify and ran into an extreme case of the wagon-circling phenomenon. Those present at the hearing were treated to an unforgettable display of clashing egos and sweeping definitions of what might constitute scientific fraud, with Rep. Dingell at times seeming to suggest that any research experiment that came up with results later disproved (a large proportion of all experiments) might constitute a waste of government funds. Dr. Baltimore countered with an aggressive public relations campaign by top scientists and university presidents arguing that any such questioning amounted to government meddling in science. Neither proposition was well served by the actual investigation of the actual point at issue, which was whether Ms. Imanishi-Kari had cheated. The final disposition of the argument -- that she had -- is a reminder of how little was settled, at cost, perhaps, to both science and the effort to keep it clean.

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