Baltimore’s Travels Continued
In 1989, when I wrote the article entitled “Baltimore’s Travels,” I thought that my saga might soon be history. Little did I know that this controversy, which had begun in 1985, would continue on for another seven years. Daniel Kevles chronicled its full extent in a book, The Baltimore Case, and I will not repeat the details here but rather provide a simple summary.
Shortly after the Issues article was published, I was approached about taking the presidency of the Rockefeller University. It was my graduate school alma mater, and the chance to lead it was an opportunity I could not ignore. The controversy seemed over and the Rockefeller board of trustees assured me that it would not be an impediment to my presidency. Much as I loved living in Cambridge and directing the Whitehead Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), I decided to accept and moved to New York.
I felt that Rockefeller needed some fundamental structural alteration if it was going to maintain its luster as a research and teaching institution. I did begin to institute some changes and was, predictably, opposed by some of the faculty. In March 1991, the controversy over the Cell paper unexpectedly flared up anew. An investigatory committee of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released yet another report, this one accusing my co-worker, Thereza Imanishi-Kari, of research falsification and fabrication of data and accusing me of being overly supportive of her. Secret Service analysis of laboratory notebooks was offered to support the accusations. This became headline news, and although I tried to defend Thereza and myself, it was to little avail. A crescendo of criticism came from the scientific community, the Rockefeller faculty, and the press. The mounting pressure continued over a seven-month period with letters and calls to the Rockefeller board. I ended up with no alternative but to resign.
The case was ultimately remanded to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) panel of two administrative judges who commandeered one scientist to join them. They took extensive testimony and came out with a judgement that there had never been any credible evidence that Thereza had committed an act of misconduct. Their surprisingly definitive statement ended the case, and Thereza went on to receive tenure at Tufts University.
Meanwhile, I had returned to MIT, where I had reestablished my laboratory and was contentedly continuing the career trajectory I had established early in my life as a scientist and educator. I fully expected to live out my career in this very satisfying way, especially because MIT had made me a University Professor, a position of great prestige and little responsibility. However, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) had other plans for me. They offered me their presidency and with some trepidation but great excitement, I accepted and have now been at the job for more than five years. The controversy over the Cell paper is an increasingly dim part of my past, but some scars remain. Given this chance to ruminate on the experience, I will make a few comments on disparate aspects of its effect on me and on science in general.
The first thing to say is that I look back with some pride at my decision to support a powerless junior colleague and to stand up to the harassment from Rep. John Dingell’s (D-Mich.) committee. During the course of my saga, the Republicans took control of the House and Dingell was relegated to the minority, blunting his enormous power. Had the judgment of the HHS review panel come down while Dingell was still in power, I have no idea how he would have responded, but I shudder to think of what he might have done. Although I have made some attempts at reconciliation, I have never heard from him or any of his henchmen. I did receive an editorial apology of sorts, headlined “Rush to Judgment,” from the New York Times, which I greatly appreciated.
I believe that the 10-year controversy proved that congressional committees are no place to adjudicate scientific issues, and I am glad that there has never been another such case. However, the issue of misconduct in the scientific community has never been more current than it is today. After years of physicists believing that they were immune to such events, this past year has seen two big scandals in physics. Some believed that the pressures of careerism in biology coupled with the empirical nature of the field made misconduct in biology much more likely, but we must recognize that it is a danger to the integrity of all science.
In protecting the reputation of science, we must be careful to preserve the distinction between error and misconduct. Error is unavoidable, and misconduct is intolerable. Error in science will be found out because of the self-correcting nature of the scientific process. This process can be slow and often is not transparent, but the self-correcting function of science is one of its strengths. To preserve the health of science, diligent action must be taken to discover, expose, and punish scientific misconduct. Unless perpetrators of scientific fraud are exposed, they are likely to continue their wrongdoing where they are or at another laboratory Thus, misconduct proceedings can be an important part of the process of purifying science.
Today, misconduct actions are handled primarily by the institution where the purported event occurred. They can be carried out with discretion, so that if no misconduct is found, the accused’s reputation does not suffer. My case was first handled at MIT where, in retrospect, the correct verdict of no misconduct was rendered. If it had not been for interference in that process by others and ultimately Congress, Baltimore’s Travels would never have reached the level of visibility that they ultimately achieved, and my life would have been very different.
One should always learn from adversity, and I can look back and see lessons that have been important to me. These include the need to be true to one’s own beliefs, even if others counsel capitulation. But the strongest lesson is that true friends are those who stick with you when times are bleakest.