Assault on Science


By Maxine Singer
Wednesday, June 26, 1996 ; Page A21

Last week the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the complete vindication of Thereza Imanishi-Kari, and thus indirectly of David Baltimore, from charg\es of falsification of scientific data in a paper they coauthored in 1986. This is a welcome end to a decade-long assault on the integrity of these two scientists and on science itself. The tale is an America tragedy.

For the principals, the tragedy is personal. Although the formal charges were directed only at Imanishi-Kari, it was widely assumed that both she and Baltimore committed the worst of scientific sins, the publication of fabricated data. Both have suffered ruin of reputation, deep personal anguish, loss of precious time for families, research and teaching, and costly attorneys' fees.

Imanishi-Kari lost her faculty appointment and has been denied the privilege of National Institutes of Health (NIH) research grants. Baltimore, one of the world's great scientists, was never personally accused of misconduct, but because of his steadfast confidence in Imanishi-Kari, many of his one-time friends and colleagues were led to distrust him, thus denying him one of a scientist's most precious possessions. The Rockefeller University, which had been proud to have him as president, forced him to step down. For Margot O'Toole, who worked in Imanishi-Kari's laboratory for a year and there generated the suspicions that were the basis for her charges against Imanishi-Kari, it also meant personal anguish and loss of time and opportunity for scientific effort.

Science itself also suffered tragic assaults. The widespread and prominent media coverage left the public with the impression that Baltimore himself was both accused and guilty of data fabrication. Our national discomfort with heroes, even when they are associated with exemplary accomplishments and public service as in Baltimore's case, predisposed the public to believe the worst. Our contemporary aversion to authority encouraged many to conclude that if such a great scientific leader was guilty of misconduct, then science itself was unworthy of public trust. Deep-seated public skepticism over the value of scientific knowledge and the technology it spawns comforted the ill-informed. The discomfort, aversion and skepticism undermined the appreciation and support for science that are essential if we are to solve the health and environmental problems that plague the world, ensure our nation's economic and military security, succeed in space exploration and sustain our country's long-standing role as the global leader in these knowledge-based undertakings.

American science also suffered because it was deprived of one of its most effective leaders. On the national scene, Baltimore had played a leading role in the initiation and formulation of responsible policies for the safe scientific development of genetic engineering techniques when they were first introduced in the mid-1970s. Consequently, the science flourished without threat to the public or the environment, and a major new industry, biotechnology, has burgeoned. In the early 1980s Baltimore also took a courageous leading role in convincing the public and the government that the AIDS epidemic was a serious problem.

But for the past 10 years, he has been essentially silenced, his talent and wisdom idle as the unproven suspicions were used to keep him from participating in important decisions about the directions of science and science policy. The university world, sadly in need of visionary and outspoken leadership, lost an articulate voice when Baltimore left Rockefeller University.

How and why did all this happen? And why did it take so long to resolve the issue, thus exacerbating the personal and national tragedies?

Accusations of scientific misconduct are serious matters. There is no question that in the past, research institutions and federal agencies that support research often gave only cursory attention to such allegations. No one wants to return to that situation. All scientists recognize that, like other pursuits, science has its bad apples and that, as the scientific enterprise has grown in people and money, there are more such sore spots even if the percentage stays very low.

Because science depends fundamentally on the honesty of its practitioners and on the expenditure of public funds, it is essential to have credible mechanisms that ensure the identification and punishment of transgressors without destroying the enterprise itself. But all of our notions of fair play, due process and human rights assume that an accusation alone is not proof of misconduct; much more is required. Why then was an accusation alone, and one made by a single individual, considered sufficient in the Imanishi-Kari/Baltimore case? Why were so many so quick to condemn long before all the evidence was available?

O'Toole's charges escalated into national prominence when they became the personal agenda of two scientists who have made a profession of being scientific watchdogs. Their complex interconnections with the NIH and HHS offices responsible for investigating charges of scientific misconduct -- and with the 1988 staff of the subcommittee on oversight and investigations of the House Energy and Commerce Committee chaired by John Dingell -- gave them substantial influence over the investigation of O'Toole's charges (the whole story is laid out in a May article in the New Yorker by Daniel J. Kevles). Anyone who followed or attended the proceedings of the subcommittee knows that the guilt of Imanishi-Kari and thus of Baltimore was assumed. It was also plain that had it not been for the prominence and distinction of Baltimore, the interest of the subcommittee and press would have evaporated. The opportunity to "get" a distinguished scientific leader was irresistible.

Sadly and inexplicably, the scientific community itself contributed to the unfolding of the tragedy. At the 1989 meeting of the National Academy of Sciences, I asked various colleagues to attend the second subcommittee hearing on the subject, scheduled for later that week, to demonstrate support for science and for Baltimore. The troubling and almost universal response was negative. Some academy members had already assumed Imanishi-Kari's and Baltimore's guilt even in the absence of the dispassionate evidence scientists are trained to require.

Soon after, it became evident that a group of important scientists was actually conspiring to read Baltimore out of the community. They published accusatory pieces in the weekly science magazine Nature. There were suggestions that Baltimore be expelled from the academy and his Nobel Prize revoked. The faculty of Rockefeller University, perhaps motivated partly by dislike of the reforms Baltimore was introducing, joined the chorus; its pressure on the Rockefeller trustees contributed to the forced resignation. The self-serving reason given for all of this was concern that unless the scientific community was seen as policing itself, the flow of federal research funds would be in jeopardy.

The NIH/HHS mechanisms for dealing with accusations of scientific conduct were, however, the critical factor in generating the tragedy. These ever-changing processes fail in many ways. Clear charges are not conveyed to the accused, and charges and procedures change in midstream. A charge by a single individual is sufficient to initiate a multi-year, mul\timillion-dollar investigation. Guilt is presumed. The accused has no opportunity to respond to the charges until very late in the process -- at the final appeals stage, where Imanishi-Kari and Baltimore were exonerated.

The process is unduly responsive to political pressure. The same office is responsible for investigating and prosecuting the charges and acting as judge and jury, and it does all this with no sense of urgency and little attention to the elapsed time. Confidentiality is often breached.

This failed institutional framework continues its flawed activities to this day. Scientists other than Imanishi-Kari and Baltimore have suffered from the inept procedures in the past. Others have their reputations at stake in current proceedings. It has been clear for some time that the whole mechanism is ill-conceived and inherently unable to ensure fairness and justice. It should be changed in fundamental ways, and the sooner the better. This is one way partly to recompense Imanishi-Kari, Baltimore and O'Toole for their 10 years of uncertainty and suffering.

The writer, a molecular biologist and former scientist at NIH, is president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Articles appear as they were originally printed in The Washington Post and may not include subsequent corrections.