It concerns a scientific paper in immunology by six authors (1) which appeared to be erroneous and was retracted. This was forced by an investigation of an ad hoc committee of the National Institute of Health (NIH), acting on an accusation by a young scientist (M. O'Toole) of the principal researcher, T. Imansihi-Kari of having fabricated the primary data.
The NIH panel (1989) found “numerous errors”, however,” no evidence of fraud, conscious misrepresentation, or manipulation of data.” But the whistleblower was not satisfied and received support to have the case reinvestigated by a panel of a newly established Office of Scientific Integrity (OSI) of NIH, and simultaneously, outside the scientific circle, by an hearing committee of Congress. The case became known by the name of Baltimore, – Nobelprize winner and the supervisor of the paper -, and grew out into a public affair through the publicity that was generated by scientists, administrators and politicians who took opposite stands.
The judgment of the OSI panel, by a vote of 3 against 2, was in 1990 “Guilty of two charges of fraud as well as other offenses”. The hearing committee of congress subpoenaed the laboratory records and turned them over to the Secret Service for investigation. It leaked the results to the press: “20 percent of the material in one crucial notebook was found to be forensically questionable.” Baltimore retracted the paper (1) and in 1991 he resigned as President of Rockefeller University.
The Office of Research Integrity (ORI, the successor of OSI, now established under the Department of Health, HHS) appointed a next investigation panel of three scientists, who reached in 1994 the severe verdict “Guilty of nineteen charges of fraud”. Imanishi-Kari was barred from receiving NIH funds for 10 years.
She was not deposited with this outcome, requested at HHS an appeal which was granted.
The appeal panel reached in 1996 the conclusion: “For none of the nineteen charges had the ORI proved its case by a preponderance of the evidence.” It criticized the circumstantial evidence presented by the Secret Service. And it criticized O'Toole for her accuracy and partisan stand.
Baltimore and Imanishi-Kari felt rehabilitated. In 1997 Baltimore was appointed President of the California Institute of Technology. Imanishi-Kari was appointed as associate professor with tenure at Tufts University.
The case received very much attention in the press and with the public at large, for the reason that a Nobelprize winner (Baltimore) was involved. Many scientists also presented their views in the press and scientific journals like Science and Nature. One of Baltimore's strongest defenders throughout the developments was Kevles, who ultimately also wrote a book “The Baltimore Case: A trial of Politics, Science and Character (2) in which all the characters involved, pro and contra, are being analyzed. Noteworthy is also a book review (3) of Kevles' by D.L. Hull, who initially was convinced that the allegation of fraud was justified, but later changed his mind. Nevertheless he did found Kevles' conclusion that Baltimore and Imanishi-Kari were exonerated too far reaching because the last judgment by the appeal board in the case is only phrased as that the by the preceding investigation no prove of the charges was presented. But certainly Baltimore and Imanishi-Kari were rehabilitated in public by their subsequent appointments in prestigious scientific positions.
A less lengthy paper on the events is by B. Goodman (4) . And in a next one (5) he presents an analysis how scientists have suffered from not justified allegations of scientific conduct.
But certainly this was also a case of very poor book keeping of primary data. Imanishi-Kari could produce as evidence, hardly more than just tapes from an radioactive counter with pen written notes on it, of which the Secret Service doubted whether they were not added at a later date. The more likely explanation for the erroneous paper is that Imanishi-Kari had a theory of herself at the time on an immune response, which later turned out to be wrong, (4) but which she probably supported by a selective use of the experimental data. So at last the case comes down to insufficient professional control by discussion of controversial theories among the scientists in the Baltimore/Imanishi-Kari laboratory.
The obvious thing that should have been done by one or more of the authors of the paper (1) when O'Toole found her results not in agreement with the preceding ones, was to repeat the initial experiments.
When other evidence, presented by other researchers turned up that the paper was erroneous, Baltimore admitted the misinterpretations and technical shortcomings. At that stage the affair could have been ended as the settlement of a scientific dispute. But among the actors emotions had run high, probably (according to the records of Kevles and Hull) also because the career of the wistleblower O'Toole was at stake, who's persistence in the case was not generally appreciated in the scientific community.
It should also be mentioned that at the time (late '80th ) in the US rules of procedures for the investigation of allegations of scientific conduct were being developed, but as yet not sorely tried. The case may well have been an exercise for ORI; April 1995 it published his rules of procedures for the investigation of allegations (6)
At last the Baltimore affaire goes into history as poor investigation practice of alleged misconduct in science, with poor rules, with a very disputable interference by a Congress committee of laymen, and an unfortunate, emotional attention in the public at large.
1. D.Weaver, M.H.Reis, C.Albanese, F. Constantini, D. Baltimore, T. Imanishi-Kari
Altered Repetoire of Endogenous Immunoglubilin Gene Expression in Transgenic Mice Containing a Rearranged Mu Heavy Chain Gene.Cell 45 (April 25, 1986, pp. 247-259
2. D.J. Kevles. The Baltimore Case: A trial of Politics, Science and Character. Norton, 1998. 509 pp
3. D.L. Hull.Scientists Behaving Badly. New York Review of Books, December 4, 1998
4. B. Goodman.Decision In Imanishi-Kari Appeal Spurs Call for Changes In System.The Scientist, 10#16, pp 1-6, Augst 19,1996
5. B. Goodman. Scientists exonerated by ORI Report Lingering Wounds.The Scientist, 11#12 pp 1-3,l 1997
6. The Office of Research Integrity, NIH. Model Policy for Responding to Allegations of Scientific Misconduct. Washington, 1995, revised 1997
The Baltimore Frame Story Case (NL 2000-2002)