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Science, held accountable

Robert Lee Hotz is a science writer for The Times.

Isaac NEWTON altered records of lunar and solar sightings to make reality fit his theories. Sigmund Freud fabricated case studies. Louis Pasteur lied about the first public trial of his anthrax vaccine. Gregor Mendel conducted plant-breeding experiments whose results were too good to be true. Indeed, any number of science’s most influential historic figures might find their research methods and integrity questioned today, so rigorous has the scientific method become. Those missteps, the product of intuition, inexperience or eagerness to bolster a plausible theory, were something less than fraud yet might well be considered misconduct by a modern institutional review board. Each exemplifies the perils of trust and judgment in science. For how does one distinguish between error and fraud, between sloppiness and deception?

In “The Great Betrayal,” George Washington University science historian Horace Freeland Judson takes up that question, using fraud as a lens through which to inspect the practices of contemporary research. "[S]crutiny of the nature of fraud and other misconduct,” he writes, “will reach to the heartbeat and pulse of what the sciences are and what scientists do at this, the start of the new millennium.” As a condition of scientific freedom, researchers have long insisted on policing themselves. Judson believes that widespread misconduct arises from their flawed checks and balances. His book comes at a telling moment, when economic and political forces threaten to undermine scientific integrity. This is a pressing public concern, for objective scientific judgment is critical to American society; as arbiters of technical disputes, our scientists contribute almost as much to public policy as to pure research. But even as their impartiality is being questioned, many researchers are convinced that the data on which government decisions are based are being manipulated for partisan advantage. Scientific advice on many public policy issues -- global warming, breast cancer risks, stem cell research -- is customized to political tastes. Nor is government the only culprit: The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit group with no corporate or government funding, has documented scores of instances in which companies have funded seemingly independent scientific studies to influence public opinion.

Judson, author of “The Eighth Day of Creation,” the definitive history of molecular biology, has been an intimate of many of the last half century’s leading researchers, which gives him a rare authority when it comes to scientific mores. “The Great Betrayal” is part history, part policy analysis, part memoir -- in places shrewd and scholarly, in others biased and seriously flawed. He powerfully reminds us that science is a noble vocation, demanding adherence not only to a process of inquiry but also to the principles of its secular faith.

Since 1980, when Congress loosened restrictions on how scientists could profit from publicly funded research, commercial behavior, once thought unseemly in science, has been encouraged. Thanks to lavish public funding, university research is an enterprise yearly generating some $40 billion in economic activity and thousands of patents. As the commercial values of business supplant traditional professional values, Judson writes, they foster a corrosive culture of fraud -- in science no less than in the securities business or professional sports. He ranges broadly across the research landscape: Problems of shared authorship, peer review, plagiarism and the role of laboratory mentors all come under scrutiny. But the book’s centerpiece, and its weakness, is a 1986 case of misjudgment that remains the defining scientific dispute of recent years.

It hinged on a contested paper in the journal Cell by an obscure MIT biologist named Thereza Imanishi-Kari. One of several coauthors was Nobel laureate David Baltimore, a prominent figure in American science. (He is today president of Caltech.) Internal dissent hardened into accusations of fraud, escalating into a congressional sideshow that featured the spectacle of a powerful Nobel laureate twisting from the gibbet of public opinion. The case touched a nerve in collaborators who work in separate laboratories and exposed the risks run by whistle-blowers who question the integrity of published research, Judson writes. It also exposed the essential ambiguity of the scientific process, in which experimental mistakes, conflicting data and differences in interpretation are not uncommon.

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Although never accused of wrongdoing -- the work was not performed in his lab -- Baltimore, as Imanishi-Kari’s chief defender, was at the center of the maelstrom. He insisted that politicians had no business policing a scientific dispute and vigorously protested the unfairness of the congressional and related federal investigations, in which the accused had none of a defendant’s normal legal rights. Even so, the paper was retracted and Imanishi-Kari was charged with 18 counts of scientific misconduct. Baltimore resigned as president of Rockefeller University because of adverse publicity.

Had the matter ended there, it would remain a classic study in comeuppance. Judson apparently began his book with that outcome in mind. But Imanishi-Kari appealed and was finally allowed to confront the witnesses. In a 191-page decision, a review board, composed of two government lawyers and a senior microbiologist, dismissed the charges. Their judgment was unflattering: Her published research was “rife with errors of all sorts,” though not with fabrication or fraud. But the government investigators had been even more incompetent, the board found, noting with asperity that they had confused sloppiness and bad judgment with criminal misconduct.

The decision seems to rankle Judson, whose disdain fatally distorts his account of the case. He stoops to innuendo to impugn the board’s impartiality. Thus he writes that when the defense’s cross-examination began, board member Judith Ballard “sat forward, face shining, eyes wide and fixed on [the defense attorney]. She raised her hands to the level of her head and twice, silently, pumped her fists in the air.... Although other interpretations may be possible, it certainly seemed to me to be a pantomimed cheer” -- an odd assertion from a serious historian. Asked by this reviewer about the gesture, Ballard, a veteran of such proceedings, was incredulous. (“I may have yawned or stretched,” she said.)

Judson has extracted a moral from the tale. It is a rebuke aimed at Baltimore but resonating for all scientists. To voice it, he quotes the late Howard Temin, who shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with Baltimore in 1975: “When an experiment is challenged ... it’s your responsibility to check.... [W]hen you publish something you are responsible for it. And one of the great strengths of American science ... is that even the most senior professor, if challenged by the lowliest technician or graduate student, is required to treat them seriously.... It is one of the most fundamental aspects of science in America.” *


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