Thursday, March 28, 1991 ; Page A22

WHILE IT WAS originally about immunology, the past decade's most bitterly fought case of scientific fraud rapidly turned into a morality play. Arrogance, ambition and pride had more to do with the way this quarrel developed than genetic theory did. After five years and five investigations -- two by universities, two by the National Institutes of Health and one by a congressional subcommittee -- the affair seems to have arrived at a conclusion. The evidence of fraud is very strong. That is, the scientists who defended the research, and denounced the congressional inquiry as political interference with science, were wrong. The subcommittee, which is to say Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), turns out to have been right.

It began with a scientific paper by several people in a laboratory headed by David Baltimore, then of MIT, a Nobel laureate and a major figure in American science. A junior member of the staff, Margot O'Toole, raised questions about the data provided for the paper by her superior, Thereza Imanishi-Kari, then of MIT, now of Tufts. Medical research labs tend to be as rigidly hierarchical as Navy ships, and criticism from the lower ranks gets much the same kind of reception. Both MIT and Tufts looked briefly into the charges and brushed them off as matters of interpretation. NIH, which had funded the work, took a look and said much the same.

Meanwhile Mr. Dingell's subcommittee got interested. That drew a furious reaction from Dr. Baltimore and many other leading scientists, who protested the congressional investigation as a political intrusion and an assault on the purity of science. Mr. Dingell is not a universally beloved figure. He's a roughneck and can be a bully. He's also tenacious. He subpoenaed the scientists' lab books containing their original data and sent them to the Secret Service's experts on documentary verification. They discovered that some of Dr. Imanishi-Kari's results could not have been achieved when she said they were and, as one thing led to another, a series of anomalies began to appear in her notes. The NIH uneasily reinstituted its own investigation. Last week its Office of Scientific Integrity circulated a draft of its report, which was promptly leaked. It flatly charges Dr. Imanishi-Kari with fabricating data. Dr. Baltimore announced that he was withdrawing the disputed paper and abandoning his defense of her.

Scientists like to say that scientific research is a self-cleansing process. That's generally true, but there have been exceptions, and this case was very nearly one of them. Without the unusual resources of the Secret Service, some of the issues here might never have been settled. But this case got off to a bad start when the scientists responsible for the paper, beginning with Dr. Baltimore, gave short shrift to a young colleague's objections and allowed her to be forced out of not only their lab but scientific research as well.

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