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NIH finds scientific errors but no fraud.

NIH finds scientific errors but no fraud

A National Institutes of Health (NIH) panel has cleared Nobel laureate David Baltimore and several colleagues of scientific fraud. But it did find "significant errors of misstatement and omission, as well as lapses in scientific judgment," according to a report released last week.

The three-member panel absolved the authors of any serious wrongdoing, but the issue seems unlikely to subside. Critics still harbor doubts about the research, and powerful members of Congress have take on this episode and the issue of scientific fraud in general with a vengeance. The entire affair has forced scientists to reexamine their system of monitoring error and outright fraud.

The controversy centers on a scientific paper published in the April 25, 1986 CELL by a team of researchers at the Masschusetts Institute of Technology and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. Baltimore, director of the Whitehead Institute, has taken much of the heat, along with coauthor Thereza Imanishi-Kari, formerly at MIT and now at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. The research in question involved the insertion of foreign genes into mice and the effect on the animals' immune systems.

Allegations of scientific error began when Margot O'Toole, a postdoctoral scientist working under Imanishi-Kari, began suspecting serious flaws in the research method. O'Toole spoke up, but Imanishi-Kari dismissed her concerns. O'Toole says she would have let the matter drop, but another junior researcher alerted Walter Stewart and Ned Feder, two NIH researchers who serve as unofficial watchdogs of scientific misconduct. Stewart and Feder found evidence suggesting the Boston team's data failed to support its conclusions. Baltimore and his colleagues called for an officially sanctioned NIH review. NIH Director James B. Wyngaarden complied last year, appointing three outside scientists to investigate.

The panel interviewed the researchers as well as O'Toole and others involved in the dispute. They found factual and clerical errors in the data and problems with a reagent that could have skewed conclusions. The panel recommended the team send a correction letter to CELL. Baltimore and his colleagues say they've already done that in a Nov. 18 letter to the journal, but the panel maintains that letter doesn't go far enough.

On balance, Baltimore and colleagues profess satisfaction with the NIH report. " feel vindicated," Baltimore said in a prepared statement issued after the report's release. "The document supports my original judgment that this research work would be a significant contribution to the literature."

O'Toole and others contend the report brushed aside evidence of significant scientific error. "The panel's report is laced with equivocal and evasive phrases," O'Toole wrote in a comment letter to NIH. She called the report an "inadequate scientific analysis of the facts."

The whole controversy may end up in Washington again. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has held hearings on the "Baltimore paper" in the past. "We may have Mr. Baltimore and the NIH before the committee to discuss [the report] in greater detail," Dingell says.
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Title Annotation:National Institutes of Health investigation of David Baltimore
Author:Fackelmann, Kathy A.
Publication:Science News
Date:Feb 11, 1989
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