Busting the Busters

By Gary Taubes|Wednesday, January 01, 1997
The longest-running tragicomic opera in science--the so-called Baltimore Affair--came to a climactic finale this past June. The case, the federal government’s best publicized investigation of scientific fraud, had been touted as a lesson for arrogant scientists: that truth is determined not by who has the Nobel Prizes but by the data. Like all good operas, however, it reversed itself in the final act, and the only sure lesson to emerge was that investigators in the Office of Research Integrity (ori) were bad at their job.

The case began in 1986, when Margo O’Toole, a young immunologist at mit, discovered troubling inconsistencies in an article written by her laboratory chief, Thereza Imanishi-Kari. The paper, on an experiment in which foreign genes were inserted into a mouse, seemed to support a theory of the immune system that has since gone out of fashion, leaving the article scientifically irrelevant. But among Imanishi-Kari’s coauthors was Nobel laureate David Baltimore, whose participation turned the case into a cause célèbre.

It started small. O’Toole’s suspicions about Imanishi-Kari’s work prompted two university inquiries in which faculty investigators, including Baltimore, dismissed her concerns as a difference of scientific opinion rather than evidence of misconduct or fraud. Then O’Toole lost her job, which gave the university investigations the aura of a cover-up and brought the case to the attention of a pair of self-proclaimed scientific watchdogs at the National Institutes of Health, who believed an injustice had been done.

For act 2, the setting moved to Washington and national attention. A series of official nih investigations followed, not to mention four congressional hearings. The U.S. Secret Service performed a forensic examination of Imanishi-Kari’s lab notebooks, comparing samples of ribbon ink, paper, and printer output. Imanishi-Kari, it concluded, had seemingly taken old data tapes and pasted them into her lab books to cover up for experiments that had never been done--much as O’Toole had alleged.

As the affair escalated, Baltimore accused Michigan congressman John Dingell, who chaired the congressional hearings, of staging a witch hunt. Dingell in turn attacked Baltimore and his supporters for whitewashing the alleged misconduct. Both sides attracted powerful backers in the biological research community.

In March 1991, nih investigators leaked a draft report of their findings to the press. Basing most of their conclusions on the Secret Service examinations, the nih investigators determined that Imanishi-Kari had committed serious scientific misconduct. They called Baltimore’s defense of Imanishi-Kari and his continued attacks on O’Toole deeply troubling, while praising O’Toole as heroic for her dedication to the belief that truth in science matters. Baltimore, who responded by retracting the original paper (though he later retracted the retraction), was asked to resign from his position as president of Rockefeller University. Meanwhile, in 1992, Congress created the ori, which took over the investigation. When its final report was published in 1994, it charged Imanishi-Kari with 19 counts of scientific misconduct.

But that was only act 2. Last June act 3 came to a close, and with it (apparently) the affair. Imanishi-Kari appealed the ori report before a three-member panel of the Department of Health and Human Services (dhhs), parent agency of both the nih and the ori. Over a six-week hearing, the appeals panel waded through 6,500 pages of testimony and some 70 lab notebooks. Imanishi-Kari was allowed for the first time to cross-examine her accusers.

The appeals panel exonerated Imanishi-Kari of all charges, suggesting that the Secret Service may have found fraud in her notebooks only because it was under pressure from Dingell to do so. And the panel took the ori investigators to task for pursuing what it said was, after all, suspiciously like a witch hunt. Imanishi-Kari called the verdict a victory. Baltimore called it vindication after a decade in limbo.

The case was the second high-profile fiasco for the dhhs. Three years earlier, an appeals court had overturned its findings of misconduct against aids researcher Mikulas Popovic, who worked in the laboratory of virologist Robert Gallo. After this latest decision, Baltimore suggested that the government’s mechanism for investigating charges of scientific misconduct would have to be reconstituted. For the first time in a decade, few disagreed with him.
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