Baltimore regrets fraud:
Apologizes for defense of fabricated data
By Katherine Shim
On Thursday, David Baltimore '61, former Whitehead Institute director and current president of Rockefeller University, released
a statement formally apologizing for his staunch defense of the work of a former researcher in his laboratory, Thereza Imanishi-Kari. The statement comes in response to a draft report released in March by the Office of Scientific Integrity (OSI) at the National Institutes of Health which concluded that Imanishi-Kari's work had been falsified.
In his 14-page statement, Baltimore also rebutted some of the criticisms of the OSI draft report and apologized for his criticisms of Congressional intervention in the matter. Baltimore's statement, along with a rebuttal written by Imanishi-Kari, will be considered by the OSI before its final report is released in June.
"I realize now that I erred in failing to heed the warnings" of Margot O'Toole, who had been first to question Imanishi-Kari's work, Baltimore said in his statement to NIH. "The better course would have been to suspend further comment on the matter until I had a full opportunity to review and digest all of the new information," he added.
"In good conscience, I feared a rush to judgment, and I accorded [Imanishi-Kari] the benefit of every doubt. I now recognize that I was too willing to accept Dr. Imanishi-Kari's explanations and to excuse discrepancies as mere sloppiness. Further, I did too little to seek an independent verification of her data and her conclusions," Baltimore said.
"I recognize that I may well have been blinded to the full implications of the mounting evidence by an excess of trust, and I have learned from this experience that one must temper trust with a healthy dose of skepticism. This entire episode has reminded me of the importance of humility in the face of scientific data," he said.
In his statement, Baltimore maintained that he had no personal knowledge of misconduct, and that his staunch support of Imanishi-Kari resulted from relying too heavily on those investigating the matter at MIT, Tufts University and the NIH.
Controversy began in 1986 when Imanishi-Kari, Baltimore and several others published a paper in the scientific journal Cell whose conclusions were found to be unsubstantiated. The paper asserted that the insertion of a foreign gene into a mouse would stimulate the production of related antibodies, a finding that other researchers have not been able to confirm.
Investigations were subsequently undertaken by MIT, Tufts, the OSI and the Congressional Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations chaired by Rep. John D. Dingell (D-MI).
In March, the OSI released a draft report which concluded that Imanishi-Kari had falsified her results. While the draft report did not accuse Baltimore of fraud, it said that Baltimore's persistent defense of the paper in the face of mounting criticism was "difficult to comprehend" and "deeply troubling."
Apology to O'Toole
In his statement, Baltimore apologized to O'Toole, who had been the first to question the validity of the paper and whose reputation had been marred in the ensuing controversy.
"I commend Dr. O'Toole for her courage and her determination, and I regret and apologize to her for my failure to act vigorously enough in my investigation of her doubts," Baltimore said. "[I have] tremendous respect for Dr. O'Toole, personally and as a scientist," he added.
Responding in a statement, O'Toole accepted Baltimore's apology but added that he still has not addressed the issue of "his failure to act vigorously enough." O'Toole maintains that though Baltimore was aware that Imanishi-Kari could not back up her conclusions experimentally, he continued to support her.
"I appreciate Dr. Baltimore's words of praise for me, but his apology does not go to the heart of the question," O'Toole said. "During our meeting on June 16, 1986" after the paper had been published, "Dr. Imanishi-Kari candidly admitted that she had not obtained the results reported in the paper."
"She said that she had made mistakes by reporting data that had not been obtained," O'Toole continued. "Dr. Baltimore told me that `this kind of thing' was not unusual and that he would take no corrective action. He told me that he personally would oppose any effort I made to get the paper corrected."
In response to Baltimore's claim that he relied too heavily on the reports of those investigating the matter, O'Toole said, "Dr. Baltimore's 1986 investigation was complete enough to discover that my objections were substantiated. However, he did not act on them."
Also in his statement Baltimore asked that several accusations made against him by the OSI in its draft report be excluded from its final report. The OSI has "no basis for the strongly worded attack," he said.
The OSI criticized remarks made by Baltimore including a remark at a hearing of the NIH panel in which Balimore said, "In my mind you can make up anything that you want in your notebooks, but you can't call it fraud if it wasn't published."
In his statement, Baltimore said that his comments were made "in the heat of the moment. . . . My remarks to OSI were not at all intended to condone fraud or to sanction the submission of misleading materials to NIH."
"In sum, I believe that OSI's findings regarding my conduct should be amended and that the final report should be tempered in light of these responses," he said.
Extends olive-branch to Dingell
Also in his statement, Baltimore apologized for his criticisms of Dingell's Congressional investigations of the paper. In May 1988, Baltimore sent a "Dear colleague" letter to scientists across the country which said, "What we are undergoing is a harbinger of threats to scientific communication and scientific freedom. The halls of Congress are not the place to determine scientific truth or falsity."
In his apology Baltimore wrote, "I have learned from this experience that the accountability to ensure the responsible use of public funds rests not only with each individual scientist but with the scientific and academic communities as a whole."
"For their work, scientists are entrusted with public funds. I have come to better appreciate the legitimate role of government as the public sponsor of scientific research and to respect its duty to protect the public interest and hold the scientific community accountable for its stewardship of public funds," he wrote.
Dingell responded in a statement, "I agree with Mr. Baltimore that we need a major cleanup of the way science handles these matters of fraud. I very much regret that reaching those conclusions has been so long and painful for some."
Imanishi-Kari still claims that she is innocent of all charges of misconduct. "The difficulty with Dr. Baltimore's statement is that what it doesn't emphasize is that this investigation has not been thorough or fair, " according
to Bruce Singal, Imanishi-Kari's lawyer.
"Yes, there has to be protection for whistleblowers, but where is the protection for theaccused? There's no due process, no right to question witnesses, no right to see the evidence against the accused. It's like a `Star Chamber' proceeding in which the accused has no rights," Singal added.
Statements from Baltimore, Imanishi-Kari, O'Toole and Dingell appeared in The Boston Globe and The New York Times.