Pair of researchers put scientific cheaters under microscope. Unofficial probers claim much laboratory fraud is undetected
Washington — Two scientists with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are waging an unofficial - and, in some quarters, unwelcome - campaign against fraud and misrepresentation in research. Ned Feder and Walter W. Stewart say the official machinery for policing dishonest activity in the scientific community fails to produce swift action against misconduct. Misrepresentation and deception have become acute problems among scientific researchers, resulting in squandered government subsidies and endangered public health, they contend.
Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, says Dr. Feder and Mr. Stewart have ``really done a great public service by bringing to the fore what the National Institutes of Health haven't been willing to face.''
After conducting a study of professional practices among a sampling of their colleagues, the two scientists reached the ``disturbing conclusion'' that a third of them had published misleading statements or had engaged in departures from accepted standards of scientific research. Their efforts were partly responsible for the indictment last month of Stephen Breuning on charges that he allegedly fabricated data to obtain a government grant. Feder and Stewart say Dr. Breuning committed fraud that resulted in retarded patients receiving a dangerous drug treatment.
At a House subcommittee hearing last month, called by Rep. Ted Weiss (D) of New York to examine the question of fraud in scientific research, Feder and Stewart presented a study of 47 researchers whom they said were unwitting co-authors with a researcher later shown to have committed extensive scientific fraud. John Darsee, who was conducting research in cardiology at the Emory University and Harvard medical schools, was caught fabricating data in work substantially supported by the NIH. Dr. Darsee was subsequently barred from receiving government research funds for 10 years.
The Feder-Stewart report concludes that a third of the 47 co-authors with Darsee published misleading statements or engaged in departures from accepted standards of scientific research.
In a hearing conducted by Congressman Dingell, Feder and Stewart detailed their part in bringing charges against David Baltimore, who in 1975 was co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for research in cellular biology. They said that a team of researchers supervised by Dr. Baltimore misrepresented underlying data the team had compiled.
The NIH is in the process of choosing a panel to look into allegations - which Baltimore defines as simply differences in interpretation. He has accused Stewart and Feder of acting as ``judge and jury.''
Although not investigators in any official capacity, Feder and Stewart say they have received over 100 complaints in the last 12 months year from peers alleging fraud or misconduct in scientific research. The NIH office responsible for such investigations received 20 in the same period.
Stewart attributes the small number of reports coming through official channels to scientists' reticence about coming forward with evidence that may put one of their brothers under a microscope. He says that confidentiality is a major factor - that ``one of the greatest hurdles scientists'' must negotiate is whether the information ``will be reported back to the university'' or other institution where they work.
Robert L. Sprague, a professor at the University of Illinois, says that after he initially raised questions about Breuning's methods, his research funding was held up, and subsequently decreased, by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
Empowering the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate NIH cases is being studied by the staff of US Rep. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, says Wyden aide Rachel Gorlin.
May Miers, institutional liaison officer at the NIH says, ``It's difficult to know how to perform when reports are going to them [Feder and Stewart] and not to us. It creates obvious problems.
``I don't have anything to say about how Stewart and Feder spend their time,'' she adds. ``To them, this is an intellectual activity and I respect their rights as scientists to pursue any activity.''
Others are less charitable. ``Scientists make mistakes, and the only time they don't make mistakes is when they don't do any work,'' says Elizabeth Neufeld, chairman of the biological chemistry department at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).
``The whole fabric of research is trust,'' Dr. Neufeld says. ``Genuine fraud is a real tragedy which should not be passed off lightly. On the other hand, to accuse people of misconduct, when it may only have been a mistake, is equally tragic.''
Stewart points out that he and Feder, in conjunction with Dr. Sprague, were well out in front of established channels in the Breuning case.
Sprague is skeptical about established investigation mechanisms. He says experience tells him that government agencies, and universities where research is government-funded, act first in their own interests.
NIH is conducting educational campaigns within the scientific community to reassure its members that disclosures of wrongdoing by scientists will be treated ``confidentially and fairly,'' says Ms. Miers. She would not comment on the conduct of the Breuning investigation.
The NIMH refuses official comment while the Breuning case is in court. But deputy NIH director Katherine L. Bick told a congressional subcommittee that determinations of misconduct are ``complex,'' requiring input from scientists in the particular fields of study.
The important thing at this point, says Sprague, is not the individual cheaters, but making sure that charges of misconduct are speedily investigated.