LAST ACT IN THE BALTIMORE CASE
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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