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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