SQUALOR IN SCIENCE
By Daniel S. Greenberg
Tuesday, April 9, 1991
; Page A21
Nobel laureates are the royalty of science. Postdoctoral researchers are
the serfs -- working on short contracts while striving for secure jobs. In
1986, prospects glowed for Margot O'Toole, a 33-year-old postdoc in immunology
at MIT. Then she committed a perilous act that derailed her career.
O'Toole questioned the validity of a breakthrough research paper
co-authored in the prestigious journal Cell by Nobel laureate David Baltimore
and O'Toole's laboratory chief, Theresza Imanishi-Kari. Shortly afterward,
O'Toole was fired and denied the recommendations essential for finding a job
in the small tribe of immunology researchers. But O'Toole persisted with her
challenge to the paper.
Now, after five years of inquiry, investigators at the National Institutes
of Health have concluded that she was right -- the paper is riddled with false
and fabricated data. After resolutely defending the paper (hence the
"Baltimore case"), Baltimore, now president of Rockefeller University, has
asked that it be withdrawn from the scientific literature. But the stain on
science extends beyond one falsified paper. Throughout the long ordeal,
prominent members of the scientific establishment closed ranks to challenge
O'Toole, misrepresent the validity of the faked experiment and discredit
congressional interest in the case as an attack on science.
The data challenged by O'Toole were produced by Imanishi-Kari in a
collaborative experiment with Baltimore, then at MIT. O'Toole's allegations
were rejected in quick inquiries held by MIT and Tufts University, where
Imanishi-Kari moved in 1986. O'Toole then brought the case to NIH, which had
financed the disputed research. NIH made plans to appoint a three-member
investigative panel, two of whom were longtime collaborators of Baltimore.
After their suitability was questioned by Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who
chairs a committee with jurisdiction over NIH, the investigation was recast
with members remote from the parties.
In January 1989, the panel reported finding no evidence of fraud or
misrepresentation, but faulted the paper for "serious errors of misstatement
and omission, as well as lapses in scientific judgment and interlaboratory
communication." NIH directed Baltimore and company to publish corrections. The
final draft of the panel report strongly commended O'Toole for scientific
integrity. But the praise was missing from the published version. Questioned
by Dingell, NIH officials and the panel members acknowledged that the words
were once there, but could not explain the deletion.
The case was reopened in April 1989, when O'Toole charged that
Imanishi-Kari had thrown NIH off the fraud trail by hurriedly fabricating
laboratory records to support the findings in the challenged paper. Analyses
by Secret Service technicians confirmed that crucial sections of her lab
records were written several years after the reported experiments were
Leading scientists rallied to support Baltimore. In a "Dear Colleague"
letter to hundreds of scientists, Phillip A. Sharp, Director of the MIT Center
for Cancer Research, warned of a congressional "vendetta against honest
scientists," and urged a counter-attack through op-ed articles and letters to
the editor. Two weeks later, an op-ed column in The New York Times by Columbia
College Dean Robert E. Pollack stated that "the way Dr. Baltimore is being
treated means that witch-hunts are in the offing."
In May 1989, Prof. Henry Wortis, head of the Tufts inquiry that had cleared
the paper, testified that the controversy was meaningless because the "central
conclusions have been confirmed" by independent experiments "that have not yet
been submitted for publication . . ." Two years later, the purported
experiments have still not been published. Wortis declines to discuss their
On March 14, the Office of Scientific Integrity at NIH concluded in a
121-page report that Imanishi-Kari had "fabricated" laboratory records and had
"repeatedly presented false and misleading information" to NIH. Baltimore's
long-standing defense of the paper was described in the report as "difficult
to comprehend." Terming his defense of Imanishi-Kari "extraordinary," the
report stated that "Dr. Baltimore, by virtue of his seniority and standing,
might have been instrumental in effecting a resolution of the concerns about
the Cell paper early on, possibly before Dr. Imanishi-Kari fabricated some of
the data later found to be fraudulent."
The report concludes: "Dr. O'Toole's actions were heroic in many respects.
She reserves the approbation and gratitude of the scientific community for her
courage and her dedication to the belief that truth in science matters."
O'Toole was hired last year to do cancer research at a Cambridge, Mass.,
biotechnology firm. Her career is back on track. Heroic is indeed the proper
word for her performance in this long episode. For the science establishment,
another term is appropriate: squalid.
The writer is is editor and publisher of Science & Government Report, a
Articles appear as they were originally printed in The Washington
Post and may not include subsequent corrections.