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the paper (hence the "Baltimore case"), Baltimore, now president of Rockefeller University, has asked that it be withdrawn from the scientific literature.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 conducted.

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 whereabouts.

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 Washington-based newsletter.

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