The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 20.0°F | A Few Clouds

Accusations of Fraud Force Baltimore to Resign Post

By Josh Hartmann
____When the National Institutes of Health concluded that data in a scientific paper written at MIT had been faked, researchers around the country found themselves defending the scientific process against a wave of public suspicion.

Last March, the NIH found that a former MIT researcher, Thereza Imanishi-Kari, fabricated crucial data in a paper coauthored by David Baltimore'61 and others. The paper, based on work done at the MIT Center for Cancer Research, was published in the scientific journal Cell.

Baltimore, who had staunchly defended the paper since its publication, asked shortly after the NIH announcement that it be retracted. He later apologized for his long-time defense of Imanishi-Kari.

Many observers believe the controversy surrounding the Cell paper forced Baltimore to resign from his position as president of Rockefeller University. It is well known, however, that many of Rockefeller's faculty were opposed to his leadership of the university.

In their report, NIH investigators did not directly accuse Baltimore of fraud, but they called his continued defense of the Cell article and Imanishi-Kari "extraordinary" and "difficult to comprehend." The report accused Imanishi-Kari of "serious scientific misconduct," stating that she "repeatedly presented false and misleading information" to the investigators and expert scientific panels. Imanishi-Kari is currently a researcher at Tufts University.

The Cell article reported experiments on laboratory mice that seemed to indicate that the introduction of foreign genes into an animal could lead to the expression of related genes within the animal, a topic which the biological community is still debating. The finding, which has not been confirmed, could have implications for immunological study and gene transplant work.

Soon after the paper was published, Margot O'Toole, a former postdoctoral fellow at MIT, challenged its findings. MIT, Tufts, the NIH and the Congressional Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations all launched investigations.

The NIH report quotes Baltimore as saying that "in my mind you can make up anything you want in your notebooks, but you can't call it fraud if it wasn't published." The NIH called these statements "deeply troubling."

The report added that Baltimore's remarks were "all the more startling when one considers that Baltimore, by virtue of his seniority and standing, might have been instrumental in effecting a resolution of the concerns about the Cell paper early on, possibly before Imanishi-Kari fabricated some of the data later found to be fraudulent."

O'Toole praised as `heroic'

The report praised O'Toole, calling her actions "heroic in many respects" and saying that she "deserves the approbation and gratitude of the scientific community for her courage and her dedication to the belief that truth in science matters."

O'Toole said she was "very relieved that the truth has finally come out." She called the report "an act of courage on the part of the people that wrote it."

Baltimore apologized for his defense of the paper on May 2. In a 14-page statement, he also rebutted some of the criticisms of the NIH draft report and apologized for his criticisms of congressional intervention in the matter.

"I realize now that I erred in failing to heed the warnings" of O'Toole, Baltimore said. "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 his statement, Baltimore also apologized to O'Toole. "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.

Legal costs troublesome

The Whitehead Instiute for Biomedical Reseach reimbursed the NIH in April for legal costs Baltimore incurred during his term as director. Whitehead had wrongly billed the NIH nearly $69,000 for Washington-based attorneys and lobbyists to attempt to influence a congressional committee investigating Baltimore.

Current Whitehead Director Gerald R. Fink ordered a complete reevaluation of Whitehead's policies with respect to indirect costs to ensure compliance with government regulations.

Both the accusations of fraud and improper billing raised larger questions about the status of the federal government's relationship to American universities. Former Provost John M. Deutch '61 expressed concern that the Baltimore investigation -- like the congressional investigation of Stanford's overhead cost policy and the Justice Department's antitrust probe into university admissions and financial aid policies -- was indicative of "a lack of public confidence and appreciation of the nation's great research universities. The proper response to that is not to turn away from the controversy, but for universities to forthrightly meet these questions and attempt to restore confidence in these terrific assets of the nation."

MIT responded to this lack of confidence in April when President Charles M. Vest and Provost Mark S. Wrighton established a Committee on Values, with an aim that Wrighton said "goes beyond the concerns raised in connection with the NIH investigation," though he added that it is "certainly one of the areas about which we do have concerns."

The committee's four-part mission, according to Wrighton, is to review and articulate values MIT holds in the conduct of academic research, to examine MIT's policies and procedures in view of those values, to compare MIT's policies with federal and private guidelines governing research grants and contracts, and to suggest constructive changes in MIT's current practices.

Broader aims of the committee include raising community awareness of values connected with scholarly research, developing a mentoring system for rising MIT faculty and researchers, and strengthening communication between the Institute and incoming faculty members, Wrighton said.