Professor David Baltimore of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is under attack by Representative John Dingell of Michigan. Why should anyone outside of the government or basic biomedical research care? To begin with, it is a good story; beyond that, the process of scientific investigation itself is at stake.
Baltimore has a Nobel Prize in medicine, directs the prestigious Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and is one of the country's leading and most well-funded researchers. Dingell is a respected legislator with a long record of rooting out fraud and mismanagement in government.In 1986, Baltimore and his colleagues published a report on immunology in the journal Cell, one of hundreds he has authored or co-authored. Former members of his laboratory claimed that some of the results in this paper were falsified.
Based on these claims, MIT and the National Institutes of Health reviewed the work and concluded that Baltimore's group had not committed fraud but had made a number of small errors in their paper. Baltimore and his co-authors acknowledged this in a letter published in Cell.
The NIH has reopened its investigation and Dingell apparently believes that Baltimore and his group committed a fraud. He has subpoenaed many of Baltimore's notes and letters, as well as the letters and notes of a large number of people who have worked with him.
Baltimore's reputation is at stake, but the rest of us will be affected by the outcome of these investigations. What has come under a legislative cloud for the first time in a very long time is the legitimacy of the scientific method itself. This is a serious threat to science and medicine.
The NIH will have the last word on Baltimore's published research. But as I understand the Congressman's case, it is that published science must be free of error and that error itself indicates bad faith and fraudulent intent. This is wrong. Published error is at the heart of any real science. We scientists love to do experiments that show our colleagues to be wrong and, if they are any good, they love to show us to be wrong in turn. By this adversarial process, science reveals the way nature actually works.
Science differs from politics, or religion, in precisely this one discipline: We agree in advance to simply reject our own findings when they have been shown to be in error. There is no shame to this. The freedom to make mistakes and admit them is at the core of the scientific process. If we are asked to foreswear error, or worse, to say that error means fraud, then we cannot function as scientists.
We need only to look at a neighboring field - electrochemistry - to see science in action. Have scientists in Utah discovered table-top nuclear fusion? I don't know. Congress doesn't know. The point is: No one knows, and there is no way to find out except by this legitimate search for error we call science. If those in Utah prove to be right, they will be famous; if they are wrong, they will still be good scientists.
I fear that science is about to be put to an unfair test by Congress. I cannot claim to be an uninterested party: I am a grateful recipient of NIH grants, and it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge my deep respect for the peer review processes that define the funding of biomedical research in this country.
If we as a country make science a field for only those who enjoy a good lawsuit, we will have shut the door on our future as a technologically serious nation. Clearly Congress cannot wish to do this. I would welcome a Congressional initiative to deal with fraud as such, but I fear that the way Baltimore is being treated means that witch-hunts are in the offing.