By Michael Specter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 5, 1989 ; Page A08

In a congressional hearing that many consider an inquiry into the methods of scientific research rather than the stated subject of fraud, Nobel laureate David Baltimore and two colleagues vigorously denied yesterday that they ever committed misconduct of any kind.

Speaking before a packed hearing of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations into "scientific fraud and misconduct," Baltimore, Thereza Imanishi-Kari and David Weaver testified about a paper they wrote in 1986.

Their study, which was published in the journal Cell, was investigated by two universities and the National Institutes of Health in addition to the subcommittee after a researcher in Imanishi-Kari's laboratory, Margot O'Toole, became convinced there were serious errors in it. Her complaint led to a series of investigations, which culminated in the current congressional probe. Although some errors were found, none of the investigating groups has discovered or alleged any outright fraud or misconduct.

"This subcommittee has done the most extensive analysis of scientific data in a single paper the world has probably seen," said Baltimore. "And the results {of the research} are not in doubt."

Because Baltimore is such an eminent scientist, the case has captured the scientific community's attention. Many scientists say the case has taken on a significance far out of proportion to the alleged misconduct.

Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) asked NIH Director James B. Wyngaarden and others repeatedly whether they thought misconduct occurred during the research or during the lengthy process in which the work was investigated. NIH sponsored the research, which involved how the immune system develops in the growing human body.

Secret Service officials testified that dates in laboratory notebooks were changed and the notes were altered significantly by Imanishi-Kari, a researcher at Tufts University, who worked with Baltimore at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the time of the original study. She was accused of having altered her notes to support her published interpretation of experiments in the paper.

NIH reopened the investigation last week, partly in response to the Secret Service reports that data may have been falsified.

"I've had a chance to see some of these new charges and to me they make no sense," Imanishi-Kari told the subcommittee yesterday. "What they seem to be saying is that I am not a neat person. Well, that's true. I do keep my notes in what seems to others as a messy condition. But I know my notes; I know where they are and how to read them. That's what's important. After all, they are my notes."

Imanishi-Kari told the committee she often revises her notebooks, that she conducts several experiments simultaneously and sometimes cannot record her data immediately. That, she explained, accounted for practices whose motives might seem dubious.

Dingell said yesterday that he has no interest in "policing" science but that he is concerned about the system that institutions use to investigate allegations of misconduct.

Wyngaarden admitted under sharp questioning from the committee that the agency has no significant statutory ability to enforce systematic examinations where fraud has been charged.

The case has become so prominent because the early inquiries into the research, conducted at MIT and Tufts, were not very broad. When the NIH finally sought an independent investigation, it turned out not to be independent because NIH staffers contributed to the final report, members of the outside panel acknowledged yesterday.

"We do not need to establish in this country some federal science police squad," Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said yesterday. "But we do need to assure our taxpayers that universities can deal responsibly with these problems and that they have the will to."

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