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Baltimore resignation raises old questions about research

By Brian Rosenberg

David Baltimore's resignation from the presidency of Rockefeller University has once again raised questions about the relationship between government and universities. Monday's announcement has also caused concern among Baltimore's former colleagues over the way scientific research is performed.

Most of those familiar with Baltimore's situation at Rockefeller were not surprised by his resignation. "The situation was very fragile. Many senior faculty didn't like [Baltimore] because of his plans" for the university, said Maurice S. Fox, a biology professor at MIT.

Baltimore was hired for his skills as a scientific administrator, skills demonstrated while he was director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. He came to Rockefeller's presidency with a mandate to change the college's atmosphere.

He also brought the controversy surrounding his defense of a 1986 Cell paper which he co-authored with Thereza Imanishi-Kari, now a researcher at Tufts University. A federal panel accused Imanishi-Kari of falsifying data in the paper, and the controversy followed Baltimore, though no charges of fraud were made against him.

"The people at Rockefeller used the circumstances [of the Cell paper] to embellish their case" against Baltimore, Fix said. "It looks like there was an issue of where power resided between younger versus more established faculty."

"The Cell paper was just used as an excuse" by those opposed to Baltimore's plans, Imanishi-Kari said in a telephone interview yesterday. The planned changes would have "given more freedom to junior faculty. The senior faculty cannot say they don't want change, so they say [Baltimore's departure] is because of the paper," she said.

Resignation seen as great loss

Baltimore's colleagues agree that his resignation deprives Rockefeller and the entire scientific community of a first-rate researcher. "It's a tragedy . . . that he won't have a chance to fulfill the challenging goals he set for himself," said Gerald R. Fink, current director of Whitehead.

The entire Cell controversy has had "good and bad consequences," said Imanishi-Kari, "but the bad are 100 times bigger than the good." She said scientists had become more aware of the need for clarity, but that the public's perception of how science is conducted had been skewed by the ordeal.

Imanishi-Kari and others feel that Baltimore has been "hounded" over the Cell article. "There are certain politicians who make political hay out of such things," said Professor of Biology Gene M. Brown. "As long as they believe that's the case, we will have them," he added.

"Certain people on [Rep. John D.] Dingell's (D-Mich.) staff and in the NIH have been overzealous," said Fox. "The whole ordeal has taken a heavy toll on him personally," said Fink.

The investigation also threatens relations between the federal government and universities. "Cooperation between universities and government in the field of science has been very positive, and it would be a pity if that cooperation were eroded," said Professor of Biology Alexander Rich.

"The government is taking a fairly aggressive stance on [scientific] misconduct, said Brown. Brown also said the government was "struggling to come to grips with the issue in an appropriate way -- but I'm not sure there is one that everyone will agree on."