By Michael Specter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 29, 1989 ; Page A03

In a dramatic twist to one of the most celebrated investigations of scientific misconduct in decades, the National Institutes of Health has decided to reopen a case in which Nobel laureate David Baltimore and several colleagues had been accused of research fraud.

The action comes two months after a special NIH committee had closed its investigation by absolving the researchers of the most serious charges. The panel found, however, that they committed "significant errors of misstatement and omission."

Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations, had scheduled hearings on the case next week, but NIH officials said yesterday they had new questions about the research.

The complex case has been disturbing and confusing from its beginning. Essentially, the scientists were accused of making up data to support the findings of esoteric research into how genes regulate the immune systems of mice. The report was published in a 1986 issue of the scientific journal Cell.

Because the group included Baltimore, director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the nation's most prominent scientists, the accusations have remained more visible than they would otherwise have been.

The controversy quickly grew beyond the question of whether specific experiments were done correctly and focused on how legitimate disagreements over conduct of scientific research should be investigated and resolved.

Baltimore was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Many in the scientific community have questioned whether the lengthy investigation, by NIH and Dingell, has been warranted by the types of errors in the original research.

"I just don't know what the point can be," said Maxine F. Singer, president of the Carnegie Institution, who is on Baltimore's board. "I have no way of making any scientifically sound comment on the new charges. But the pursuit of this investigation has been so zealous in the face of some other issues, including clear cases of fraud. In terms of the national interest, it's hard to see how this matters."

Some of the confusion may be resolved by Dingell's hearing. Capitol Hill sources said yesterday that Secret Service officials would testify that documents in laboratory notebooks had been forged in the original research. They said that the information came to light only recently and that it was not available to the NIH committee that absolved the researchers of fraud.

"Some of this has been romanticized as conflicts among major personalities in science," said William Raub, deputy director of NIH. "But there are two very different cultural points of view clashing here. Many scientists would say the important thing was that the result was accurate. Others are less forgiving about errors along the way."

After the original paper was published, Margot O'Toole, a researcher in the laboratory of Thereza Imanishi-Kari, then at MIT, became convinced there were serious flaws in the work. She then brought them to the attention of officials at NIH and MIT.

Scientists have accused the Dingell investigation of a kind of McCarthyism, saying that it would make researchers fearful that anything they ever wrote in lab notebooks could be taken out of context and used against them.

But Dingell staff members insist that their purpose is to understand the institutional response when somebody, such as O'Toole, comes forward with an allegation of error or misconduct.

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