THE United States scientific community is becoming alarmed at the possibility of regimentation by government ``research police.'' Recurring fraud is building pressure to monitor government-funded scientists more closely. The National Institutes of Health has set up an Office of Scientific Integrity to handle cases of suspected fraud. The Food and Drug Administration conducts data audits to ferret out ``doctored'' numbers.
Few argue that these specific actions are not justified. But many scientists also fear a trend toward laboratory policing that would discourage creativity.
If such a trend develops, the American scientific community will have itself to blame. It has been slow to acknowledge and deal with research fraud. What is more significant, some elements within that community are all too eager to toss aside science's traditional safeguards against fraud and error in order to get money out of Congress.
The most important of these safeguards are the scientific review processes. These include provision of information needed for scientists in other laboratories to replicate experiments, prepublication review of scientific papers by peers, and peer review of proposals for grants or facilities.
These safeguards have taken a beating in the 1980s. An increasing number of universities and other research institutions are doing end runs around the peer-review processes of fund-granting agencies. With the help of hired lobbyists, they go directly to Congress to have some of an agency's research funds earmarked for their own projects. This academic pork barrel diverts tens of millions of dollars a year, which should be available for proposals that win their way by merit. Leading scientific organizations - including the National Academy of Sciences - have condemned this practice as corroding research integrity.
What's worse, scientists and institutions sometimes ignore the entire review process. Witness the still-unfolding cold-fusion story. The University of Utah and its researchers have announced their work through press conferences and public statements instead of through normal scientific publication. They have withheld details needed for others to confirm their work. And, even before we know whether or not they have found a promising new energy source, they have gone to Congress with a hired lobbyist to plead for money.
The lobbyists call peer review a ``flawed'' ritual that favors a hidebound establishment. Why, then, should the public trust scientists to use this ``flawed'' safeguard to police fraud? This distrust manifested itself in a dangerously bizarre way earlier this month. Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan hauled Nobel laureate David Baltimore, director of the Whitehead Institute, and his colleague Thereza Imanishi-Karl of Tufts University before a congressional hearing that might have been a Marx Brothers satire of the Spanish Inquisition.
The scientists are co-authors of a paper for which Dr. Imanishi-Karl was accused of fudging her data. Investigation showed only that there were some errors and that she was a sloppy notekeeper. Dissatisfied, Mr. Dingell had the Secret Service put her notebooks through forensic tests. Unable to understand the science involved, Secret Service agents used sophisticated analysis of ink and ball-point pen impressions to confirm that she was a sloppy notekeeper. No fraud was found.
Dingell only made himself, his committee, and the Secret Service look silly. Many scientists are understandably outraged. But they should be even more outraged at scientists and institutions that subvert traditional safeguards of scientific integrity for the sake of money.