WASHINGTON -- Just 3 1/2 months into her job as director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Bernadine Healy underwent intense questioning yesterday from a congressional subcommittee about her handling of scientific misconduct cases both at the NIH and in her previous job as chairwoman of the Cleveland Clinic Research Institute.
Representative John D. Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the oversight subcommittee, charged Dr. Healy with "virtual destruction of the entire office" at NIH that investigates allegations of scientific misconduct.
Mr. Dingell said he is considering introducing legislation to take the Office of Scientific Inquiry out of NIH and place it in the inspector general's office in the Department of Health and Human Services.
In the past six weeks, he said, Dr. Healy has taken a number of actions that involved reordering the OSI and forcing chief investigator Dr. Suzanne Hadley off two widely publicized scientific misconduct cases -- one involving Dr. Robert Gallo, the internationally famous AIDS researcher whose labs are at NIH, and the other involving an MIT scientist, Dr. Thereza Imanishi-Kari, who had collaborated with Nobel laureate Dr. David Baltimore.
Both Dr. Gallo and Dr. Imanishi-Kari were charged with falsifying data.
The final Gallo report has not been finished.
Dr. Imanishi-Kari was found guilty of fabrication, and Dr. Baltimore has publicly apologized for not taking a whistle-blower's charge seriously.
After a tense four hours of pointed questioning of herself and several government witnesses yesterday, the clearly distressed NIH chief told reporters that she strongly objected to the "skulduggery in the way they were asking questions."
At the heart of the hearing were the questions of how well scientists police themselves; whether the effectiveness of the NIH Office on Scientific Integrity, formed just two years ago, has been seriously hurt; and who is now in charge of the office.
Mr. Dingell said that Dr. Healy "ordered that Dr. Hadley should be 'reined in' and directed that Dr. Hadley make no more decisions on the Gallo and Baltimore cases, and further directed that all of Dr. Hadley's files be immediately removed from her office."
He also said that she asked Dr. Hadley to rewrite a draft of the Gallo report, saying that it "read like a novel" and that she told Dr. Hadley to turn over records of her phone notes from conversations with Dr. Margot O'Toole, the whistle-blower in the Baltimore case, claiming that someone at NIH alleged that Dr. Hadley had gotten too "close" to Dr. O'Toole.
Robert B. Lanman, the NIH legal adviser, testified that this last charge was not found to be true.
Dr. William F. Raub, deputy director of NIH, told the subcommittee that the rumor may have been caused accidentally when he observed, in an intended compliment, that Dr. Hadley had been able to get "close" to Dr. O'Toole and win her confidence.
Dr. Healy said that she was concerned about breaches of confidentiality in OSI investigations after information about several cases was leaked to the press.
On July 18, Dr. Healy recused herself from all matters involving OSI after the Dingell subcommittee staff questioned whether she herself could become a subject of investigation because a case involving a Cleveland Clinic scientist is now before OSI.
Dr. Healy chaired the first Cleveland Clinic inquiry panel into that case in which a Cleveland scientist had been accused of scientific misconduct, and her panel found no wrongdoing.
However, a second panel, which she formed, looked at the case a few months later and did find evidence of misconduct.
Dr. Healy testified yesterday that the case continued to bother her and that she worried over whether she had handled it correctly and thoroughly enough.
She did not participate in the second panel. After its findings, she ordered a freeze on the grant of about $1 million the scientist had been awarded by NIH and ordered a full investigation and notified NIH.
These actions occurred before Dr. Healy assumed the post of NIH director.
She agreed under questioning that she had "failed in some aspects of that first inquiry."