Rep. John Dingell (D—Mich.) is one of the most powerful men in Washington, and he has acquired a reputation for zealously exercising that power to further his own political agenda. As chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Dingell has single-handedly blocked banking deregulation, led the fight to reimpose the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters, and castigated business leaders for participation in corporate mergers.
Dingell's latest crusade has taken on the air of a witch hunt. In his quest to establish a federal Office of Scientific Integrity, Dingell has engaged in a protracted attack on one of the nation's leading biomedical researchers. At stake is more than one man's reputation. Dingell 's quest could have a debilitating effect on all of American science.
Dingell has set his sights on Nobel Laureate David Baltimore, founder and director of the prestigious Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and author of more than 400 papers on genetics and the human immune system. Dingell's investigation centers on one of these papers. Last year, during committee hearings on fraud in science, a former postdoctoral fellow at the Whitehead Institute questioned the veracity of the data in a 1986 paper coauthored by Baltimore.
Based on the charges, MIT, where Baltimore is a professor, and the National Institutes of Health, which funds his research, undertook extensive reviews of the work. They cleared Baltimore of any willful misconduct, finding some errors that didn't undermine the main conclusions of the paper. Including the NIH investigation, Baltimore's paper has been upheld by three different peer reviews.
Baltimore's findings, published in the journal Cell, could play an important part in the search for cures for lupus, cancer, and AIDS. But Dingell's investigation, says Baltimore, has kept other scientists from using the work, lest they too be dragged before Congress.
Despite the NIH review, Dingell subpoenaed Baltimore's records and letters, as well as the letters and notes of the many people who have worked with him over the past seven years. And after a year of investigations and charges, this May Dingell finally invited Baltimore before his committee to defend himself. Although the hearing theoretically had nothing to do with crime or punishment, it took on a definite prosecutorial quality. And the inquiry continues.
Some scientists are outraged by the Dingell campaign. David Nathan, physician-in-chief at Boston's Children's Hospital, charged in a letter to Dingell: "Though you may see David Baltimore as a big fish who can attract television cameras to your cause, we see him as one of the most remarkable contributors to patient care we have ever known. An attack on him is an attack on our patients."
Many scientists worry about Dingell's ultimate goal of regimenting science. Writing in the New York Times, Columbia College Dean Robert E. Pollack argued, "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.…If we as a country make science a field only for those who enjoy a good lawsuit, we will have shut the door on our future as a technologically serious nation."