Tuesday, May 9, 1989 ; Page A22

THE SCIENTIFIC research establishment in this country enjoys a huge measure of independence and decentralization, and rightly so; its freedom from government interference despite a generous supply of government funding has been a major source of its strength. In the past two years, however, concern has risen within the government over a different kind of oversight -- the ways in which scientists themselves respond to allegations of fraud, bad practice or deliberate misconduct within their ranks. That concern was reflected in dramatic hearings last week before a House subcommittee chaired by Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), hearings that continue today.

As the main source of research support in an era of tight budgets, government has a reasonable interest in knowing whether its money is safe from flagrant abuses; the problem is to make sure of that safety without inhibiting scientific enterprise. Can scientists police themselves? How good are they at it, and can they become better? These are the questions at issue in the Dingell hearings. They have drawn attention because they involve allegations of misconduct within the laboratory of a Nobel laureate, Dr. David Baltimore, and because those allegations had already been investigated at length last year by a review committee within the National Institutes of Health, which found "misstatement and omission" but no fraud. Rep. Dingell's committee has reopened the review of that case in great depth, even calling on the Secret Service to analyze the chronology of lab notebooks. But the seemingly picayune details of the Baltimore case do not go to the heart of the problem, which is the general reluctance of scientists to admit internal problems of this sort and to engage in self-scrutiny.

Those broader problems emerged clearly in similar hearings a year ago, which examined some flagrant cases of past misconduct and the difficulties that others have faced in bringing them to light. Those committees also heard allegations of widespread carelessness and fudging -- both of which are distinct from plain, unavoidable scientific error. In the wake of those inquiries new safeguards were installed within the agencies that distribute grant money -- the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health -- to increase the size and clout of the offices charged with investigating allegations of this type. A number of universities took similar steps.

The effectiveness of these changes has yet to be tested. Rep. Dingell's stated goal in pressing further investigations now, rather than waiting for that evidence, is to increase the level of awareness within the profession. The danger is that congressional chivvying of this kind, far from raising that awareness, will put scientists on the defensive and cause them to dig in their heels. That danger was in some evidence at the hearings, which have produced a certain amount of backlash and dismay. To the degree Rep. Dingell comes to appear to scientists to be persecuting Dr. Baltimore for no purpose, his ability to bring about changes in their outlook will necessarily be impaired.

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