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Questions remain after congressional inquiry

By David P. Hamilton

After two days of public hearings, complete with heated denunciations of legislative meddling in scientific affairs and questions about the willingness of universities and research institutions to pursue allegations of fraud or misconduct, congressional investigators say they haven't been satisfied by the explanations several biomedical researchers offered last week to explain discrepancies in their laboratory data.

At the center of the dispute is a 1986 journal article in which six authors, including Nobel laureate David Baltimore '61, claimed to find evidence that genes transplanted into laboratory mice led to the expression of similar genes within the animal. These results were disputed by Margot O'Toole, a postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of co-author Thereza Imanishi-Kari, formerly of the Center for Cancer Research at MIT and now at Tufts University.

Since then, the authors' scientific work has been examined by reviewers at MIT, at Tufts, and from the National Institutes of Health. None of the investigations have found evidence of fraud, although the NIH concluded that the article contained "significant errors." Within the past two weeks, however, the NIH has reopened its investigation into the case, ostensibly prompted by new questions posed by O'Toole regarding the disposition of the scientific data supporting the experiments.

Concurrently, the subcommittee on oversight and investigation of the House Energy and Commerce Committee held hearings on Capitol Hill at which the authors defended their results and insisted that Congress is not the place to settle scientific disputes.

Issues raised by the dispute

Many in the scientific community see nothing less at stake than academic freedom and the ability to conduct scientific research unimpeded by governmental restrictions. Prominent scientists have published Op-Ed pieces comparing the congressional investigation to the "witch hunts" of the McCarthy era, and Baltimore himself scored public relations points when he faced down subcommittee chairman John Dingell (D-MI) at the end of a long day.

To others, particularly those such as O'Toole who feel they have suffered unjustly as a result of trying to speak the truth, the lengthy and expensive investigations are necessary to set the record straight.

"Scientists feel that because their job is to search for the truth, it's inconceivable that they'd compromise it," O'Toole said. "But scientists are subject to the same career pressures as anyone else, and sometimes they're tempted to stretch things."

The scientific matters still under investigation concern whether certain experiments that support a central thesis of the paper were conducted when Imanishi-Kari said they were, rather than some time later as Secret Service forensic analysis has suggested.