The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 64.0°F | A Few Clouds

Panel Focuses on Baltimore, Ethics in Scientific Research

By Eva Moy
Staff Reporter

"For me, the 10 years over which this took place has been a horror," Institute Professor of Biology David Baltimore '61 said calmly.

The high-profile "Baltimore case" started in 1986 with a question of scientific misconduct. By 1996, the case encompassed scientific methodology, congressional tactics, government oversight, the role of the press, and public trust.

This was the setting for the colloquium held Monday night entitled "Government, the Media, and Scientific Misconduct: The David Baltimore Case in American Political Culture."

The tone of the panel was that of scientists and reporters on the events in light of the verdict in favor of the scientists. The talk, sponsored by the Program in Science, Technology, and Society and Harvard University's history of science department, enjoyed a nearly full house in the Wong Auditorium at the Tang Center.

One of the strongest motivating factors were the emotions of the people involved.

€ Baltimore was an MIT professor in the area of immunology and director of the Whitehead Institute, who later served as president of Rockefeller University and has since returned to MIT.

€ Thereza Imanishi-Kari, a former assistant professor of biology who worked with Baltimore, was the focus of the 19 charges of scientific fraud stemming from an April 1986 article in the scientific journal Cell.

€ Margot O'Toole was at the time a postdoctoral researcher for Imanishi-Kari who questioned the data in the article, was rebuffed, and accused Baltimore of obstructing her attempts to correct the errors.

€ Representative John Dingell (D-Mich.) was the chair of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation who led the case against Imanishi-Kari and other scientists throughout the 1980s.

€ The National Institute of Health's Office of Research Integrity headed the initial investigation against Imanishi-Kari.

€ Malcolm Gladwell was the reporter who covered the story for The Washington Post.

In June, after a decade of controversy, the Research Integrity Adjudications Panel of the Department of Health and Human Services dismissed all allegations of scientific misconduct against Imanishi-Kari and indirectly against Baltimore, who consistently supported her work.

Speaking at the colloquium were Baltimore, Gladwell, Director of MIT's Knight Science Journalism Fellowship program Victor K. McElheny, and Director of Science, Ethics, and Public Policy at the California Institute of Technology Dan Kevles.

Scientific fraud has little to gain

Baltimore started the panel with a brief chronicle of the events over the past decade. Imanishi-Kari's 1986 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 matter which the biology community is still debating.

According to an HHS statement at that point in the investigation, Imanishi-Kari "deliberately falsified research and then covered up her initial scientific misconduct with additional falsifications when the original data were challenged."

Baltimore, a Nobel laureate and one of the paper's co-authors, had staunchly defended the paper since its publication. But he and the other co-authors issued a retraction paper in 1991 when the NIH concluded that the data had been falsified.

The researchers acknowledged three "incidences of misstatement" but concluded they were "not material alterations" and did not affect the conclusions of the paper. The report of the NIH scientific panel stated that the letter did not fully explain the paper's deficiencies.

Baltimore was not accused of fraud himself but was criticized for not reviewing the case and for his defense of Imanishi-Kari. He stepped down from the presidency of Rockefeller University in 1991 after serving for only 18 months, and many observers believed that the controversy forced him to resign from the position.

Baltimore said that repetition and variation of an experiment were the best ways to verify results. Thus, a person who commits fraud "must either be detached from reality or know that the fraud will be detected," he said. "The perpetratorŠ has little to gain and much to lose."

Some of the panelists blamed Dingell for part of the degradation in public trust in science and also for misdirected motives. "Many perfectly normal situations in science can be construed as fraud if one comes with the preconception of fraud," Baltimore said.

Creativity and the subjective nature of science are part of the very nature of research, Baltimore said. Scientists should "return to the presumption that fraud is rare," he said.

Universities have learned that they have to be more rigorous in their procedures, Kevles said. "The cost that various people paid was far too high," he said.

Audience member Chris M. Kelton G expanded these points to his course work in the STS program. "The pointŠ is to step away from any of the particular positions" in a case and open them for discussion, not necessarily to find a solution. "The question here is, Will we learn anything" from this case?

Case started in era of suspicion

The intensity with which scientific fraud was pursued grew out of other scandals in the era, like the savings and loan problems and the Iran-Contra deals, Kelves said. The Baltimore case was just one of many cases of fraud pursued, though most of these defendants were later found not guilty upon appeal.

In this environment of greater mistrust, O'Toole portrayed the image of a heroic young scientist who took a stand against the establishment, Kevles said.

From the political side, Dingell did some good exposés but was also known for intimidation tactics and news leaks press, Kevles said.

Both Kevles and Gladwell also blamed the press for its willingness to follow along without a critical review of the information. They were "manipulated and willingly pulled along [by the NIH and Dingell] in the creation of a controversy," Gladwell said.

"Absent the interest of a handful of reporters, this would have been an academic sideshow," he added.

Investigative reporting "demands getting the facts right but also getting the science right," Kevles said. He added that while reporters were eager for investigative stories, they risked access to sources by writing unfavorable stories.

As one of the reporters who covered the Baltimore case, Gladwell said he felt that many people both did not understand the investigative process of the NIH and that saw the case as "an incredible story." The case was never about the validity of the science, the panelists agreed.

Still, while Gladwell saw this case as "a normal accident" that probably will not happen again, McElheny pointed out parallels between the Baltimore case and other modern-day situations where the press and government may also unfairly judge an individual for the wrong reasons.