THE FORTUNE THAT NEVER WAS

Author: By David Warsh, Globe Staff

ECONOMIC PRINCIPALS / DAVID WARSH

Date: 06/30/1996 Page: 71

Section: Business

The public skirmish over the reputations of Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor David Baltimore and Tufts University researcher Thereza Imanishi-Kari has been formally ended by a report deeply embarrassing to the government.

It may have been the climactic battle in a behind-the-scenes war that for 15 years has been waged to identify and occupy society's ethical high ground at the end of the 20th century. The story involved the usual cast of characters: whistleblowers, government operatives, politicians, big businessmen, powerful scientific rivals, crusading journalists, policy entrepreneurs.

Now that the government case against Imanishi-Kari has collapsed under study by a scientific review board -- and all charges of fraud have been dismissed -- people are searching for an explanation of what went wrong.

US Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) is a bully, that's for sure. It was Dingell who sicced the Secret Service on Imanishi-Kari hoping to prove that she had forged her federally funded research data. The government gumshoes dutifully returned with a finding of fudged notebooks -- a conclusion viewed by the scientists who conducted the review as almost laughably ``not proven.''

With the change of control of the House of Representatives after the Republican landslide of 1994, Dingell has lost much of his power. Top aide Peter Stockton has gone, and Ned Feder and Walter Stewart, the self-styled ``fraud-busters'' of the National Institutes of Health, have been reassigned to other work and are now widely regarded as cranks. The ``Office of Scientific Integrity'' has been renamed the ``Office of Research Integrity'' and reorganized -- its procedures are being extensively rethought.

But other ingredients were necessary to take down Baltimore, the former Rockefeller University president and winner of a Nobel prize in medicine who had been regarded widely as a paragon of virtue until he defended his collaborator Imanishi-Kari against charges by a fellow researcher that she had fabricated data.

In the story of how Imanishi-Kari's career was put on hold for 10 years and Baltimore compelled to resign, these four themes (at least) have been neglected.

1. Woman against woman

The whistleblower in Imanishi-Kari's lab was a young post-doc named Margot O'Toole. How much significance should be attached to the fact that she was nine years junior to the well-established Imanishi-Kari when they started working together in 1985? The life of science is hard enough for empowered young men; how much harder must it be for young women trying to catch on without the benefit of well-developed networks among colleagues and mentors based on friendship and fellow-feeling?

As laid out in a brilliantly illuminating article by Daniel Kevles in the New Yorker last month, O'Toole brought to the lab the usual array of tensions among her commitments: a highly principled father (who had himself written a play about a whistleblower), a marriage, a son.

As a scientific supervisor, Imanishi-Kari could be as overbearing as a drill instructor: O'Toole told Kevles she remembered her saying, ``You'll never amount to anything. You'll never get a job. You'll be just one of those women the husband has to support.'' Imanishi-Kari herself was divorced and happy enough to work the long hours that competitive science requires.

How often do such relationships among accomplished women snap from intense cooperation one moment to charges of theft or fraud or inappropriate behavior the next? Insufficient attention has been paid to the dynamics of woman-woman mentoring in the professions.

2. The Harvard angle

The case wouldn't have gone far if it hadn't been for the cabal of Harvard University biology professors fanning the flames, led by Nobel laureate Walter Gilbert and including Mark Ptashne, Paul Doty, John Edsall and Tom Maniatis. James Watson, a former Harvard professor, seems to have been involved as well. These antagonisms go deep. Where in the world did they come from? It would make a fascinating story, for they reached shameful levels during the controversy.

Maxine Singer, a molecular biologist who is president of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, last week recalled asking several colleagues at the National Academy of Sciences to attend a congressional subcommittee meeting in 1989 at the height of the contretemps as a gesture of support for Baltimore. ``The troubling and almost universal response was negative,'' she wrote in the Washington Post. ``Some academy members had already assumed Imanishi-Kari and Baltimore's guilt even in the absence of the dispassionate evidence scientists are trained to require.

``Soon after, it became evident that a group of important scientists was actually conspiring to read Baltimore out of the scientific community. They published accusatory pieces in the weekly science magazine Nature. There were suggestions that Baltimore be expelled from the academy and his Nobel prize revoked.'' The Rockefeller University faculty, angered by the initial restructuring efforts of the man whom the trustees had recruited to shake up New York's premier science university, compelled his resignation, and in due course Baltimore returned to MIT.

To an extent as yet unfathomed, all this opposition seemed to somehow emanate from the Harvard biology department, only a couple miles across Cambridge from MIT.

Another prominent science journalist is working on the story. Horace Freeland Judson, author of a classic account of the discovery of DNA (``The Eighth Day of Creation''), has been following the affair as part of a larger project on changing views of misconduct in science. Both he and Kevles are working on books.

3. The cultural context

The 1980s began, mildly enough, with the publication of ``Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in Science'' by Nicholas Wade and William Broad, a couple of writers for Science magazine who had made their reputations covering the fraud conviction of Boston research cardiologist John Darsee, and who were subsequently hired by The New York Times. Both Broad and Wade quickly moved beyond the simplistic view that science was rife with fraud. But their book was the harbinger of a fad; there followed a series of highly politicized stories elsewhere, as the ``critical studies'' movement spread to the universities under the banner of ``post-modern thought.'' By the end of the 1980s, authorities were joking among themselves about ``the Fraud Game,'' meaning a seemingly endless round of meetings, conferences and reviews devoted to the subject.

When a hoax article by a physicist rejecting the law of gravity as a ``social construction'' was published by the postmodernist journal Social Text, it was in an issue devoted to ``Science Wars.'' What wars did it have in mind? Among other matters, precisely such audits of scientific prestige as the Baltimore case.

In their introduction to the issue, which made headlines when the hoax was revealed last month, the editors trumpeted the usefulness of such ongoing critical investigations of science and technology -- without suspecting the degree to which their claims to authority had been undercut by the spoof. The Baltimore case may have been the Fraud Game's Stalingrad; but the Social Text fiasco was its Normandy.

4. The changing scientific context

The phenomenon on which Thereza Imanishi-Kari was working when O'Toole accused her of shoddy work (only later did the charge become fraud) was something called ``idiotypic mimicry'' -- the possibility that a transplanted gene might stimulate the production of antibodies in an organism that might not otherwise have manufactured them, at least not in large numbers. Were it a well-established and thoroughly understood phenomenon, idiotypic mimicry might offer a bold new way to fight disease.

Such striking results naturally stimulated widespread interest when they were announced. The trouble was that initially tantalyzing results simply didn't pan out. O'Toole's frustration arose from not being able to reproduce Imanishi-Kari's results. She blew her whistle as a result.

But does the scientific community need to be protected against overly hopeful, bold or even fraudulent claims that don't pan out? Probably not, for when such experiments can't be replicated, they are ignored. One of the better jokes in science is the existence of a Journal of Irreproducible Results. No scientist wants to be known as one whose experiments cannot be replicated by others who try.

The bringing of the market into close proximity with the creation of scientific knowledge has taken this principle one step farther, by adding a cash prize. Now if you can do it, you can patent it; and if you can patent it, you can make a buck. If you can show that the other guy has got it wrong, maybe you can make the buck instead. That was the moral of the story of ``cold fusion'' a few years back: It only took a year for a dozen laboratories to establish that it didn't work, at least as advertised.

For all the temptations that money offers to do the wrong thing, it provides one overwhelming reason to all the players to do the right thing: to identify the mechanism, to reproduce the experiment, to pin down the facts. The story of idiotypic mimicry, after all, is ultimately about a fortune that wasn't made. It is possible to have serious fraud without big money -- but not likely. (Clinical trials are another matter!)

The moral of the Baltimore-Imanishi-Kari story therefore reinforces the view that science remains pretty much self-correcting. There is plenty of room for good lawyers; new discoveries are raising ethical problems at a furious rate. But science doesn't need cops to make it work.

Last modified: Wed Sep 20 20:31:05 EDT 2000