PROSECUTORS HALT SCIENTIFIC FRAUD PROBE
RESEARCHER BALTIMORE CLAIMS VINDICATION, PLANS TO 'UNRETRACT' PAPER
By Malcolm Gladwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 14, 1992
; Page A03
In a unexpected twist to the science fraud scandal that has become known as
"the Baltimore affair," federal prosecutors said yesterday they will cease all
investigations of alleged criminal misconduct surrounding a 1986 scientific
paper co-written by a Tufts University researcher and Nobel Prize-winning
biologist David Baltimore.
Immediately following the announcement, Baltimore, who last year at the
height of the controversy asked that the disputed paper be retracted, said
that he will now take the unusual step of "unretracting" the paper.
The developments appear to change dramatically the complexion of the
Baltimore case, which to date has prompted two university reviews, numerous
congressional hearings, two lengthy National Institutes of Health
investigations and a national debate about how science should be policed.
From the beginning, the focus of the case was laboratory research related
to the immune system that was conducted by Baltimore's collaborator, Thereza
Imanishi-Kari. Last March, drawing heavily on an analysis of Imanishi-Kari's
notebooks by forensic experts at the Secret Service, a draft report of the
NIH's science fraud unit found numerous irregularities in her research notes.
Imanishi-Kari, the draft said, "repeatedly presented false and misleading
information to the NIH" and "falsified" a "substantial" portion of her
laboratory work during the writing of the paper, which appeared in the
scientific journal Cell.
Although the report did not find that Baltimore had personally committed
misconduct, it said that his persistent defense of the paper was "deeply
The question of whether Imanishi-Kari had falsified data was then referred
to the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore for evaluation.
Baltimore and Imanishi-Kari's attorney said yesterday that new evidence
produced in the past few months significantly undermined the credibility of
the Secret Service's analysis.
Imanishi-Kari's attorney, Bruce Singall, said the new evidence
"demonstrates that there has been no fraud, no wrongdoing, and that this
matter has been a tragic mistake from the very beginning."
"I feel vindicated," said Baltimore, who has been dogged by the scandal for
the past five years and last year was pressured to resign from his post as
head of Rockefeller University in New York City because of his assocation with
Baltimore said the "important question" was whether Imanishi-Kari, who has
had her federal grants suspended and is still the subject of an ongoing and
separate NIH ethics investigation, will be "reinstated as a respected member
of the scientific community."
But Richard D. Bennett, U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland,
cautioned that the decision of his office should not be taken as "a
certification of any research conducted by Imanishi-Kari." Instead, he said,
it was predicated on strictly legal considerations that "we were not confident
that we could prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in a courtroom" and that
"disputes on the accuracy of the scientific data compiled by Imanishi-Kari"
were better handled by the scientific community.
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), whose House Energy and Commerce oversight
subcommittee has pushed heavily for an investigation of Baltimore and
Imanishi-Kari from the beginning, said yesterday that "the decision not to
prosecute does not change the fact that the Cell paper was retracted because
of serious and extensive irregularities."
The article purported to make a critical contribution to the understanding
of the human immune system. Doubts were raised about the paper almost
immediately after publication by Margot O'Toole, a researcher in
Imanishi-Kari's laboratory. Over the next few years, the paper was the subject
of repeated inquiries and investigations, all of which found no evidence of
wrongdoing by Baltimore or Imanishi-Kari.
Things changed dramatically, however, when at the request of Dingell's
committee Secret Service forensic experts analyzed the notebooks that
Imanishi-Kari said were the basis of the research she described in the Cell
paper. Approximately 20 percent of the data, the Secret Service said, were
faked, and key printouts of data that Imanishi-Kari said had been produced in
1985 when she was working on her paper actually came from someone else's
research in the early 1980s.
Scientists on the panel that reviewed the NIH's case against Imanishi-Kari
say the Secret Service's findings were critical in the decision to find her
guilty of misconduct. Baltimore said the report also was critical in his
decision to retract the 1986 paper.
But last spring, for the first time, a copy of the Secret Service's
analysis was given to Imanishi-Kari's lawyers, who provided it to an
independent forensic scientist, Albert Lyter.
"There are serious flaws which permeate the Secret Service reports . . .
which undermine their conclusions," Lyter wrote in a highly critical 14-page
affidavit submitted to the U.S. attorney's office in late June.
Lyter said that the Secret Service's conclusion that Imanishi-Kari had
lifted data from other experiments was based on a faulty and misleading use of
Articles appear as they were originally printed in The Washington
Post and may not include subsequent corrections.