Fraud and Science

By Kevles, Daniel J. | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Fraud and Science


Kevles, Daniel J., Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


Dr. Daniel J. Kevles is Koepfli Professor of the Humanities at the California Institute of Technology, and is one of America's leading historians of science. He is the author of The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America and In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. His latest book, The Baltimore Case: A Trial of Politics, Science, and Character, has been nominated for the Los Angeles Times Best Science Book of the Year for 1998.

REFLECTIONS ON THE BALTIMORE CASE

THE BALTIMORE CASE FIRST SURFACED PUBLICLY IN 1988, but it had been simmering in part of the biomedical research community for almost two years. The case originated in May, 1986, with a young scientist named Margot O'Toole. She was a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Thereza Imanishi-Kari, a cellular immunologist then on the faculty at MIT. O'Toole found serious fault with a paper that Imanishi-Kari and five coauthors, including the Nobel laureate biologist David Baltimore, had published in the journal Cell in April of that year. O'Toole protested that the paper's central claim was not supported by the raw data. Investigations of her charges at Tufts Medical School and at MIT concluded that the paper suffered only from minor, inconsequential errors and that O'Toole's quarrel with it amounted to a scientific dispute that could only be resolved by further research.

What kept the case simmering was the zealous pursuit of it by two scientists at the National Institutes of Health (N.I.H.)--Walter Stewart and Ned Feder--who reported it to the staff of Congressman John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat. Dingell in turn brought it to the public's attention in April, 1988, when it was featured in hearings that he called "Fraud in N.I.H. Grant Programs." In January, 1989, a panel appointed by N.I.H. to investigate the matter cleared Imanisbi-Kari of fraud, but later that year the new Office of Scientific Integrity (OSI) reopened the investigation. In 1991, the OSI found Imanishi-Kari tentatively guilty of fraud, a conclusion that was reiterated by its reconfigured successor, the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), in 1994. In 1991, David Baltimore was forced to resign the presidency of Rockefeller University for having defended Imanishi-Kari. However, as the result of an appeal, in June, 1996, Imanishi-Kari was exonerated on all charges of fraud that had been leveled against her, a nd David Baltimore was restored to public grace.

During the same period, several other cases of alleged scientific fraud and misconduct achieved comparable salience, if not so prolonged a life. And in almost every one of them, the defendants were ultimately found not guilty. Although scientific fraud is now emerging as an issue in Europe, at the time it compelled little if any attention in scientifically advanced nations outside the United States, including France. Why, then, did it become such a salient issue during the 1980s in American political culture?

One reason was Congressman John Dingell, who held additional hearings on scientific fraud, focusing on the case of Imanishi-Kari, in 1989, 1990, and 1991. Another is the media. The Baltimore Case which focused attention on the issue of misconduct and was taken to be a model for it, provided a delicious target for the press. The whistleblower, Margot O'Toole, was a compelling, highly articulate figure, a woman who, as one of Dingell's staffers put it, just "reeked with integrity." O'Toole's dogged insistence that she was right and Imanishi-Kari was wrong lay at the heart of the affair. In the media, O'Toole became a symbol of the heroic young scientist who takes a stand against the system and prevails over powerful figures like David Baltimore. In a column in Time magazine, the commentator Barbara Ehrenreich expressed the viewpoint of most of the media, "Baltimore pooh-poohed O'Toole's evidence and stood by while she lost her job. Then, as the feds dosed in, he launched a bold, misguided defense of the sancti ty of science.

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