In retrospect, it looks as though Harvard, The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Dr. Charles A. Thomas, who was accused last December of violating the government's strict guidelines for recombinant DNA research, are all relatively innocent.
Earlier this month, NIH restored Thomas with the full use of his research money for gene splicing experiments after its investigation found "no evidence" that his lab practices were out of compliance with the NIH guidelines.
Thomas, who this January moved his Harvard Medical School laboratory to the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, California, said Friday he has been able to proceed with his other research, and added, "the money has always been there, we just haven't been able to use it for recombinant DNA research."
Thomas's $112,000 grant was proscripted when NIH found he had failed to file a Memorandum of Understanding and Agreement (MUA) with the Institutes. Scientists conducting recombinant DNA research are required to file the written agreement and NIH must give them the go-ahead, before they can proceed with their research.
The NIH committee found the Harvard Medical School, NIH and Thomas responsible for the confusion regarding the MUA. Dr. DeWitt Stetten Jr., chairman of the Executive Recombinant DNA Committee, wrote in a June 8 letter to Thomas.
"I think that in retrospect, it appears that he [Thomas] was in perfect compliance--it was just a problem involving a piece of paper," Bernard Talbot, executive secretary of executive recombinant DNA research and special assistant for intramural affairs at NIH said Friday.
Two investigating committees, which included a Harvard committee directed by Konrad E. Bloch, professor of Biochemistry, as well as the NIH board began looking into Thomas's research in February after a graduate student who worked in his lab reported that Thomas was conducting P-3 experiments in a P-2 lab.
Following this accusation, Leslie Dach, science associate of the Environmental Defense Fund requested more information about Thomas's work under the Freedom of Information Act. There was no MUA on file and NIH then decided to suspend Thomas's money to find out why he had been conducting research without one, Talbot said.
A controversy between Thomas and the Harvard Medical School regarding his research apparently caused the delay in filing the MUA which arrived, coincidentally and separately at the time the investigation began.
Harvard investigators concluded also that Thomas had not violated any safety guidelines, although the University's report differed factually from NIH, Bloch said yesterday.
President Bok said Friday he is happy to see the University vindicated by the NIH report.
The press was eager to assume that there was misconduct in the case and has tried to imply that Harvard was trying to cover something up when the University report was issued, Bok said.
Regarding the issue of the press, Thomas said he will publish a letter in the next issue of Science magazine saying that the case received exaggerated attention in the press.
Thomas added, "The whole issue has been made into a political issue and there were a group of people who wished to keep it [Recombinant DNA research] in the open.