WHEN SCIENTISTS FUDGE . . .


Sunday, April 17, 1988 ; Page C06

AN UNHAPPY PICTURE of scientific research has emerged from two days of hearings last week on Capitol Hill. The hearings, in two House subcommittees, concerned scientific misconduct, and they took as their starting point the obstacles, and in some cases the career damage, that have dogged whistle-blowers in a handful of recent cases involving allegations of fraud or serious error in experiments. One such allegation of error has been leveled against a researcher in a team headed by a Nobel laureate, David Baltimore of MIT.

The notion of government-funded research conducted according to pure and objective scientific method -- rigorously controlled experiments, careful vetting of all results by prestigious journals and grant committees, collegial exchanges between scientists -- matters a great deal both to those who practice science and to those who depend on its results. Last week's testimony, which explored the reasons why some scientific fraud goes unpunished and why many scientists wink at a broad variety of less blatant carelessness and error in published research, painted a different picture of scientific research. It portrayed an all-too-human endeavor in which the pressure to publish nudges many young scientists toward careless work, and the closely interwoven interests of researchers, their supervisors, universities and government funders make it practically impossible for them to police one another.

Outright fraud is believed to be quite rare in science. But the problem of fudged or misleading research is much more common. One witness estimated that 20 percent to 30 percent of published papers contain errors such as oversimplification, misrepresentation of experimental method or results omitted when they contradict a paper's thesis. The usual defense of such practices is that science is built on repetition and that results will be thrown out if they don't hold up. But of course striving to confirm the results of a study that may have been fallacious is a tremendous waste of time and money.

The case currently at issue involved the efforts of a junior scientist at MIT, Margot O'Toole, to persuade senior scientists in her department to retract a published study by her supervisor after she allegedly found evidence that the supervisor's own research had shown the opposite of what the study claimed. Like other such whistle-blowers, Dr. O'Toole suffered ostracism and has now left the field.

In theory, the National Institutes of Health and other money-distributing agencies have oversight procedures. In practice, as Harvard biochemist John Edsall testified, "If a young scientist believes that he or she has witnessed a case of fraud, and comes to ask me about reporting it to the authorities, I would have to warn him or her emphatically about the dangers of doing so." Dr. Edsall urged consideration of guidelines that would force senior scientists to oversee their assistants more closely and would reduce the incentive to grind out large numbers of research papers regardless of quality -- for instance, by requiring a tenure candidate to submit only his best five or 10 articles, rather than all of them. Congress' nudge to such self-examination can only make life easier for the majority of scientists who practice their calling with integrity.

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