High-Profile Science

UNETHICAL CONDUCT AMONG politicians--even those in high executive office--or Wall Street traders may call for an investigation. And the procedures are fairly well-defined, because wheeling and dealing is all part of the game. But disclosure of fraud in science is another story. The recent retraction of "incorrect" research by scientists in the laboratory of Ellis L. Reinherz at Harvard's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has made it clear that the procedures for coming to grips with such fraud need to be better defined.

The scientific community is not alone in the kind of professional "pressure" cited by former Harvard-affiliate Claudio Milanese to explain his fabrication of the existence of interleukin-4a, an immune system stimulant. Science is unique, however, in that the research process is predicated on the myth of its autonomy from such pressures. Hence the shock value and significance of disclosures of misconduct. The scientific community is apparently not in need of preventive medicine for the misconduct of its members. Rather, self-scrutiny should determine to what extent such fraud is a problem in the scientific community at large.

The system of peer review of research articles and grant proposals roots out unconcious bias in scientific findings. But the recent case of research fraud involves something else: conscious bias. The system of self-regulation in the scientific community works well as a watchdog of the former, but simply was not made to deal with the latter.

A continuously functioning oversight apparatus is in order--rather than the case-by-case investigation committees that were called into action after the fact by the Dana-Farber and by the National Institutes of Health. Clearly fraud does not call for an inquisitorial committee shackling the research process, but an investigation of the extent of misconduct in the scientific community.

Part of being a responsible researcher is being a responsible publicist. On the basis of one or two research articles published last spring, Reinherz's team tentatively announced major implications for the treatment of cancer and AIDS. Is it a mere coincidence that a scientist who published a press release and reached for the newspapers at the time of a discovery is the same scientist who ends up having to retract his findings? Rather than a coincidence, the case may be a symptom of the changing environment of scientific research.

Harvard Medical School itself witnessed a major case of fraud less than four years ago, when John R. Darsee admitted to a series of fraudulent published research findings on heart disease. The line between the pure realm of academic research and the "pressures" of profit and personal gain has perhaps never before been tested as it is now in this era of high-profile science--an era that has witnessed the rapid commercializing of biomedicine.

For a public particularly vulnerable to predictions about treatments for diseases like AIDS, the conduct of scientists is ultimately a question of the reliability of information that determines what research and which health programs are funded. Editors of major scientific journals in recent years have moved to expedite the review of AIDS-related articles for publication. Expedition of peer review is an effective way to speed the spread of information. Expediting its unproven implications to the public is not.