Researcher Absolved of Data Fraud
Long Saga Battered Science Community
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 22, 1996
; Page A01
One of the longest and most tortuous investigations into scientific
misconduct came to a close yesterday when an appeals board at the Department
of Health and Human Services cleared a Tufts University scientist of all
charges that she had fabricated data.
The decision exonerates immunologist Thereza Imanishi-Kari, whose
publication of a research report with Nobel laureate David Baltimore in 1986
led to a decade of accusations and counter-accusations that shook the
foundations of scientific integrity.
It reverses a 1994 decision by a federal investigatory board that found
Imanishi-Kari guilty of 19 allegations of fraud, including charges that she
lied to cover up her misconduct. That decision led to the loss of her faculty
position at Tufts.
Although Baltimore was never formally charged with misconduct, his support
for Imanishi-Kari dragged the renowned molecular biologist through a highly
publicized scientific and political gantlet, climaxing in a series of
high-tension hearings led by Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), then chairman of
a powerful House oversight subcommittee, and Baltimore's resignation as
president of Rockefeller University.
"I'm delighted. I'm elated. It's fantastic," said Imanishi-Kari, reached at
the Tufts laboratory where she has been permitted to continue her work as a
research associate. "This has been a terrible 10 years. Now I just want to
pick up the pieces and do my research."
Paul Berg, a professor of biochemistry at Stanford University and a
longtime friend and supporter of Baltimore's, said he saw the decision as an
indictment of the way the National Institutes of Health, Congress and
Rockefeller University handled the charges. "It's a sad fact that his
exoneration comes only after he took such a beating," Berg said of Baltimore.
"The abuse he took at Rockefeller, the way he was manhandled and basically
forced to resign, I hope they hang their heads in shame."
The long saga that became known as "the Baltimore affair" started in 1986
with the publication of an arcane research report focusing on genes that
regulate the immune responses in mice. The results challenged the standard
view of how the immune system works and suggested some novel approaches to
developing treatments for various diseases, including AIDS.
But in subsequent studies, one of the researchers involved in the work,
Margot O'Toole, was unable to get the same results. When she came upon what
appeared to be inconsistencies in the data, she blew the whistle on
Imanishi-Kari, passing details to a team of self-styled "fraud busters" at the
The research eventually became the subject of formal investigations by two
university review panels, the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) and, finally,
Congress. At its peak, the case became symbolic of the larger question of
whether scientists can be trusted to police themselves.
Although only minor errors in the original research were ever proven,
forensic analysis performed by the Secret Service for the Dingell committee
suggested that Imanishi-Kari had tampered with data in certain follow-up
studies, results of which she had submitted to Dingell as part of her defense.
In November 1994, ORI concluded, in part on the basis of those findings, that
Imanishi-Kari was guilty of scientific misconduct. The office sentenced her to
10 years' ineligibility for federal research grants.
Imanishi-Kari appealed to the court of last resort, the research integrity
adjudications panel of Health and Human Services. It was that three-person
panel that handed down its decision yesterday afternoon.
"The Office of Research Integrity did not prove its charges by a
preponderance of the evidence," the panel concluded. "The Panel recommends
that no debarment be imposed and determines that no other administrative
actions should be taken."
According to the report, the panel "examined piece-by-piece all the record
evidence, including the original laboratory notebooks." It weighed testimony
from numerous experts, and concluded that the forensic evidence presented by
ORI was "at best inconclusive."
In part as a result of the Baltimore affair, the federal government has
been revising the procedures by which it may accuse a scientist of misconduct.
Already it has raised the standard of proof to the current level of
"preponderance of the evidence."
Articles appear as they were originally printed in The Washington
Post and may not include subsequent corrections.