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Baltimore inquiry sends disturbing message

Column by Ben Z. Stanger

(First of two columns)

Witch-hunts are a favorite pastime of bureaucracies. The typical witch-hunt engages the government, the media, and the public in a search for the causes of society's woes -- and a quick cure.

Government scrutiny has now come to bear on the practices of basic science laboratories, specifically that of David Baltimore '61, an MIT biology professor who has been the subject of an investigation into misconduct in science.

Baltimore decided this week that he would assume the presidency of the Rockefeller University. While this is certainly a step up in terms of administrative responsibility, and while it is impossible to know his real reasons for making the move, it is nonetheless not surprising that he would take a position farther from the line of fire.

The Baltimore inquiry has caught the attention of the national press by bringing up issues of peer review, laboratory hierarchies, and government intrusion into science. But more subtly, it has called into question the integrity of researchers as a group in a way that should frighten anyone interested in pursuing a career in science.

Moreover, as Baltimore's decision to leave MIT portends, the security of our country's scientific future becomes more tenuous as the scientific climate worsens.

For starters, it is unclear what the investigators are after. Is it a resolution of the discrepancies leading to the dispute over a paper, which appeared in Cell, that had been co-written by Baltimore? Or are congressional investigators looking for ways to bring research practices under tighter government control -- to find something wrong with the organization of scientific support?

The House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation has spent a great deal of time, effort, and funds to unearth a culprit in this case. Nothing has come out so far. But, unfortunately, the most likely outcome of this affair is increased government supervision of researchers.

What would be wrong with such an outcome, though? No one would deny that fraud takes place. Isn't it worth being overzealous to ensure that the public's trust is not violated?

Such a supervisory stance would be devastating. The threat stems from bureaucrats' veiled desire to treat researchers as they treat all government contractors -- in other words, to keep tabs on all aspects of all projects to ensure that they are not getting ripped off. There are few words as scary as "supervision" to the creative mind.

Of course, there are many differences between government expenditures on military endeavors and scientific research. The first is the amount of fraud which actually does occur in the scientific community. It is an impossible thing to judge, but my own experiences and those of experienced researchers tell me that the number of people who would knowingly distort data for publication is vanishingly small.

A second difference is that false results in science are so easy to detect. Any discovery should be repeatable. If it is not -- as with "cold fusion" -- then the result is discredited. It may not be possible to tell if the result was due to fraud or poor science, but does it matter that much? Even this can be found out by following the progress of the research concerned.

Finally, the repercussions of the watch-dog posture make the policing of researchers more ominous than the policing of government contractors.

I spoke with a faculty member at MIT recently who confirmed some of my worst fears about the Baltimore inquiry. The investigation has had a definite effect on researchers around the country, who no longer feel that they are trusted. It has made the job of research, which is exhausting enough, even more demanding by endorsing the feeling that the work goes unappreciated. It has made some scientists feel betrayed.

In addition to changing the attitudes of today's researchers, this atmosphere of mistrust is likely to discourage those responsible for the future of research. I have for quite some time planned a career in biology research. But my innocent view of the profession as a challenging way to help the world has lately been less secure. The feeling that researchers are being transformed into suspects, along with the funding cuts which are likely to follow, makes science less desirable and potentially less fulfilling.

Baltimore's decision to leave MIT may be completely his own. But the emotions it has elicited from the scientific community -- the impression that science is changing from the fun, creative enterprise it used to be -- have shown that the debate extends far beyond Baltimore's independent struggle.

This latest witch-hunt is a political maneuver for which there are virtually no grounds. It has a good chance of crippling the nation's scientific pre-eminence. It has already weakened my commitment to a scientific career.

who

Ben Z. Stanger '88 is a former managing editor of The Tech. His next column will deal with methods for dealing with issues of faculty fraud.

SANDWICH QUOTES:

Don't use too many. Also, read the ones you select. Some are redundant. --mg

[gfsandwich,1,1,1]

While it is impossible to know Baltimore's real reasons for making the move, it is nonetheless not surprising that he would take a position farther from the line of fire.

[gfsandwich,1,1,1]

As Baltimore's decision to leave MIT portends, the security of our country's scientific future becomes more tenuous as the scientific climate worsens.

[gfsandwich,1,1,1]

The repercussions of the watch-dog posture make the policing of researchers more ominous than the policing of government contractors.

[gfsandwich,1,1,1]

The feeling that researchers are being transformed into suspects, along with the funding cuts which are likely to follow, makes science less desirable and potentially less fulfilling.

[gfsandwich,1,1,1]

The emotions the Baltimore case has elicited from the scientific community -- the impression that science is changing from the fun, creative enterprise it used to be -- have shown that the debate extends far beyond Baltimore's independent struggle.