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Imanishi-Kari case ends, but debate on scientific conduct continues

When a federal appeals panel dismissed allegations of scientific misconduct against former MIT researcher Dr. Theresa Imanishi-Kari last month--officially ending a highly charged, decade-long case--its findings sent shock waves through the scientific, journalistic and governmental communities that are still being felt.

All had played major roles in one of the most celebrated cases of its kind in recent scientific history.

Among those vindicated by the panel's action was Dr. David Baltimore, Nobel laureate Institute Professor and Ivan R. Cottrell Professor of Molecular Biology and Immunology. Although never accused of wrongdoing, he was one of several co-authors of Dr. Imanishi-Kari's disputed research findings, published in 1986 in the journal Cell, and he vigorously defended her against charges that eventually were aired before a Congressional committee.

In the midst of the furor, Dr. Baltimore resigned, under pressure, as president of Rockefeller University in New York. And, at its peak, as The Washington Post reported, "the case became symbolic of the larger question whether scientists can be trusted to police themselves."

Maxine Singer, a molecular biologist and president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, described the appeals board ruling as "a welcome end to [an] assault on the integrity of these two scientists and on science itself. This is an American tragedy."

And in an exhaustive article in May for The New Yorker magazine titled "The Assault on David Baltimore," Daniel J. Kevles, professor of humanities and director of the Program in Science, Ethics and Public Policy at the California Institute of Technology, said that "a great injustice had been done in the name of scientific integrity and the public trust."

The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial titled "The Baltimore Vindication," said "the 10-year saga is a commentary on the corruption of great American institutions by modern politics."

Dr. Donald Kennedy, a biologist and president emeritus of Stanford University, said that Dr. Baltimore, because of the controversy, had ceased to be active on science policy issues such as the direction of AIDS research, in which he had been a leading figure. "We did lose his voice in a lot of influential policy circles," he said, adding that it was "no small loss. A lot of people owe David an apology."

In sum, he said, the ruling marked "the end of the sorriest chapter in American science that I can think of."

Dr. Baltimore, for his part, told The New York Times that the case had changed him. "I have never been able to forget it for 10 years and probably for the rest of my life," he said. The victory was only "bittersweet," he said, because after "all the travail I've been through, I feel a sense of relief but no accomplishment."

Dr. Imanishi-Kari said her exoneration was exhilarating and that she spent most of the night, after receiving the ruling, talking on the telephone to her family in Brazil and reading the decision, taking special pleasure in the fact that every charge against her had been thrown out. "I'm so happy," she said.

Now at the Tufts School of Medicine, where she was demoted by the university in 1994 from assistant professor to research assistant, she said she hopes to regain her faculty status and "go back to concentrating on my research."


The case began when Dr. Margot O'Toole, a postdoctoral fellow working in the laboratory of Dr. Imanishi-Kari, then an assistant professor at MIT's Center for Cancer Research, reviewed a laboratory notebook and came to the conclusion that data on 17 pages were inconsistent with data in the Cell paper.

The research focused on genes that regulate immune responses in mice. The results challenged the standard view of how the immune system works and suggested some novel approaches to developing treatments for various diseases, including AIDS.

Dr. O'Toole's accusations led to hearings both at MIT and Tufts University, where Dr. Imanishi-Kari had taken a research position after learning in 1988 that she would not be given tenure at MIT. The investigation at MIT was headed by Dr. Herman N. Eisen, now professor emeritus of immunology and a senior lecturer.

Both inquiries concluded that there had been minor errors in Dr. Imanishi-Kari's research, but that they did not affect the central claim of her paper or constitute misconduct.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) also formed a panel to investigate, and it too cleared Dr. Imanishi-Kari of wrongdoing.

The argument between the two researchers, the investigators found, was about differences in judgment, interpretations of research results and wording in the Cell paper.

The dispute escalated to national prominence, however, when two self-appointed fraud investigators at NIH, scientists Ned Feder and Walter Stewart, became involved and brought the matter to the attention of Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.). He chaired the Energy and Commerce Committee, the panel that oversees the budget for the NIH.

He and his staff insisted that the inquiries by MIT, Tufts and NIH had been inadequate.

Most observers described the hearings that followed-pursuing what Rep. Dingell claimed was an example of fraud in federally backed research-as particularly hostile to Dr. Baltimore, who continued to defend Dr. Imanishi-Kari.

The committee brought in the Secret Service to examine Dr. Imanishi-Kari's notebooks for evidence that she had cheated. It concluded, based on forensic analysis of the material, that Dr. Imanishi-Kari had tampered with data she had submitted to the committee as part of her defense.

Largely on the basis of those findings, NIH's fraud unit, then called the Office of Scientific Integrity, accused Dr. Imanishi-Kari in 1991 of falsifying data and recommended she be barred from receiving research grants for 10 years.

In response to complaints that the unit was operated as a "star chamber," the office was reconstituted in 1992 in the Department of Health and Human Services and renamed the Office of Research Integrity (ORI).

ORI issued a final report upholding the draft report's conclusion and punishment. But ORI, unlike its predecessor, included an appeals board that would, for the first time, give the accused their day in court.

It was this three-judge appeals panel that found Dr. Imanishi-Kari innocent of all 19 counts on which the ORI had ruled against her. It dismissed the case against her in a report issued June 21. It was based on hearings last summer that generated some 6,500 pages of testimony from 35 witnesses.

The board found much of ORI's case "irrelevant," adding that it was "internally inconsistent, lacked reliability or foundation, was not credible or not corroborated, or was based on unwarranted assumptions."

It said that the Secret Service's forensic findings "were not always dependable" and, in some ways, "were consistent with (indeed, arguably substantiated) Dr. Imanishi-Kari's version of events (which was also corroborated by other evidence)."

A few holdouts remained, including Dr. Walter Gilbert, a Nobel laureate and professor at Harvard University, who told The New York Times he was persuaded by the Secret Service's evidence.

The preponderant commentary, however, found the established process for uncovering scientific wrongdoing badly flawed.


Dr. Bernadine Healy, a former director of the National Institutes of Health who had insisted on an appeals mechanism for those accused of scientific fraud, said, "I came full circle to thinking that an adversarial system was necessary. It became obvious that this was a totally polluted system where these scientists got behind closed doors and worked out their venom, taking down their colleagues. It was a star chamber, a hideous travesty of justice."

The New York Times, in an editorial titled "The Fraud Case That Evaporated," said, "This. fiasco suggests that something has gone terribly wrong with the investigative apparatus that is designed to ferret out fraud or misconduct in science."

And David Warsh, writing in The Boston Globe, said the "moral" of the case "reinforces the view that science remains pretty much self-correcting. There is plenty of room for good lawyers; new discoveries are raising ethical problems at a furious rate. But science doesn't need cops to make it work."

(This article used material from The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on July 24, 1996.

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