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Impure Science: Fraud, Compromise and Political Influence in Scientific Research.

With this book, Robert Bell, an economist at Brooklyn College, makes a significant contribution to the discussion of misconduct in basic and applied science. In seven chapters he takes up varied episodes in which the practice of science, or the actions of administrators of scientific projects, show evidence of corruption or biased judgment. He explores, and throws light on, episodes as different as the use of questionable data in a much-discussed paper coauthored by David Baltimore, the origins of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and the irresponsibility of some pharmaceutical firms in the promotion of highly dangerous and widely used drugs. The guilty include institutions as well as individuals, and no sector of the research world is immune. In almost all cases, and in a final chapter on needed corrective measures, problems involving conflict of interest prove to be a central concern. Such conflicts distort judgment and lead to corruption. They must be faced and somehow brought under control if the honesty of science is to be maintained.

The first two chapters deal with cases handled (or mishandled) by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Chapter 1 centers on Jon Kalb, a young American archaeologist, who worked in East Africa during the 1970s studying human origins. His early career seemed to promise a brilliant future in this small but intensely competitive field of archaeology. His career was derailed, however, when he failed to get a crucial NSF grant for a proposal that was apparently given an excellent rating on its merits. What held up the grant appears to be an unsubstantiated rumor that Kalb was a secret agent of the Central Intelligence Agency in Africa. The chairman of the NSF review panel apparently held up action on the grant because of this but never raised the issue with Kalb. When Kalb later sued NSF under the Freedom of Information Act to find out what had really gone on, NSF tried unsuccessfully to withhold the information. NSF eventually confessed to wrongdoing and repaid Kalb's legal expenses, but it could not restore his lost career.

Chapter 2 describes a struggle between the University of California at Berkeley and the University of New York at Buffalo to win a $25-million grant to found an earthquake engineering center. NSF seems to have stacked the cards in favor of Buffalo from the start. For instance, all members of the appointed review panel were from east of the Rockies, and the panel gave a preliminary report to NSF in favor of Buffalo before making its site visit to Berkeley. The facts suggest, but cannot prove, that some NSF administrators wanted a panel biased toward Buffalo. Bell provides compelling evidence that Berkeley deserved to win the competition, but NSF awarded the center to Buffalo.

Bell devotes Chapter 7 to Pentagon management of weapons R&D. His primary source is Ernest Fitzgerald, the famous whistle-blower who was fired by Richard Nixon but fought and eventually got his job back. Fitzgerald sees enormous conflicts of interest in the way the Department of Defense (DOD) evaluates scientific projects for military use. For example, the chairman of the Defense Science Board (DSB), the major advisory body to the DOD, during much of the Reagan arms buildup was the president of Martin Marietta, a major Pentagon contractor. In 1990, at least 28 members of the DSB were high-level officers of defense contractors. Fitzgerald calls this board "the definition of a conflict of interest."

The Pentagon does, of course, police its contractors. In fact, it publishes a list of "Significant Fraud Cases" with reports on the settlements reached from the prosecution of various contractors. But because of the small number of firms qualified to perform highly specialized defense work, the Pentagon continues to deal with the firms found guilty of fraud.

According to Bell, the Pentagon itself engages in dubious practices to protect funding for projects in which it has a vested interest. For example, defense officials often mislead Congress about the progress of R&D on secret weapons until development has reached a stage where it is difficult for Congress to kill the program.

Fitzgerald believes that the only way to control the situation properly is to have sharp separation between officials who have the authority to spend money and those whose duty it is to supervise and control the spending. This would surely save much money and improve the chances that newly developed weapons really meet their specifications; but I suspect that it will be enormously difficult to introduce such a system and to keep it honest.

Chapter 4 discusses frauds in basic research and the ordeals of whistleblowers who call for exposure and corrections of such frauds. Such challenges are inevitably traumatic for institutions as well as individuals. Administrators, who naturally hope to minimize the damage, are likely to develop a serious conflict of interest if they attempt to settle such cases internally. The wish that the problem would go away conflicts with the need for a fair and objective inquiry. Bell provides a striking example in the case of University of Illinois psychologist Robert Sprague, who brought charges of fraud against his former pupil, Stephen Brunauer. After four years, Sprague's charges were completely vindicated, and Brunauer confessed to fraud; but through much of the investigation, Sprague was treated as if he were the culprit.

The major part of this chapter concerns the case of the 1986 paper in the journal Cell by Theresa Imanishi-Kari, David Baltimore, and four others at Tufts University and MIT. Bell provides a thorough and accurate account, but he does not emphasize a critical conflict of interest that existed at the very beginning of the trouble and was pivotal in transforming a small disagreement into a national scandal. The case began when Margaret O'Toole, a postdoc in Dr. Imanishi-Kari's lab, pointed out the need for a correction to a key table in the published paper because she saw that the original records in Imanishi-Kari's lab did not support the conclusions the authors had drawn from the table. As O'Toole has described it, David Baltimore had agreed with her criticism when she showed him the original records but refused to publish a correction, saying that they would leave it to future research to clear the matter up. All the senior people at Tufts and MIT whom O'Toole consulted also advised her to drop the matter and called her objections trivial. She had not, at that stage, charged fraud, but was simply asking for a published correction.

I believe that those who wanted her to drop the matter faced a serious conflict of interest. Dr. Imanishi-Kari, who held an appointment at MIT, was to move shortly to a tenure-track position at Tufts. I suspect that there was fear that even the publication of an honest correction might endanger the arrangements for Imanishi-Kari's appointment or her ability to obtain future research grants. Concern for a friend, in their minds, may have outweighed the need to correct erroneous scientific statements. A disinterested review of the case at the time might have spared us all from the painful, and still unresolved, saga that followed.

Bell's Chapter 5 concerns the marketing of dangerous drugs and other medical appliances. The major focus is on a painkiller, Zomax, developed and marketed by McNeil Pharmaceutical, a division of McNeilab, which is a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson. Because Zomax was popular and profitable, the company kept it on the market after it learned that the drug sometimes produced alarming, and in a number of cases, fatal, anaphylactic reactions. McNeil finally withdrew it from the market, but anyone who was not profiting from Zomax would have made this decision much sooner.

In his last chapter, Bell considers possible preventives and remedies for the evils he has portrayed. His primary goal is to reduce conflict of interest, which in various forms permeates these chapters. The separation of funding from control, as prescribed by Fitzgerald for the Pentagon, could apply in many other situations to avoid conflicts of interest. But those who attempt to put these proposals into practice must realize that they will face enormous resistance. Bell considers some current legislative proposals. These may turn out to be helpful, but the hazards whistleblowers face are likely to remain formidable, and real correction will take time.

Science today is deeply involved in politics--far more deeply than it was in my youth. That involvement is bound to increase as the progress of science becomes ever more essential for the future of the world. Yet the maintenance of standards of conduct in science, as they have developed over the last three centuries, is still vital. This book provides a real service in the promotion of that aim.

John T. Edsall is a professor of biochemistry emeritus at Harvard University.
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Author:Edsall, John T.
Publication:Issues in Science and Technology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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