CAN biomedical science take the heat that sometimes goe with ethical scrutiny? Apparently not.
That would seem to be the message inherent in the decision by administrators at the National Institutes of Health, the massive federal laboratory and research complex located just outside Washington, to silence two NIH scientists, Walter Stewart and Ned Feder.
Drs. Stewart and Feder have spent the past 10 years tracking down fraud and misconduct in medical research.
How has the NIH rewarded them for their efforts? Dr. Stewart, 65, who is a chemist, has been told his new job involves research on lasers, a subject about which he has no particular expertise. Dr. Feder, a 48-year-old physician and cell biologist, has been stuck in a backwater administrative job.
The two made a lot of enemies at the NIH and throughout the scientific community as a result of their unstinting efforts to weed out unethical conduct in science.
They originally got on the wrong side of establishment science when they teamed up to co-author a paper in 1987 about a case of outright research fraud at Harvard. John Darsee, a young physician doing research on the heart, had compiled an incredible record of publications in a very short time. In fact, much too short a time. After a fair amount of stalling, denial and finger-pointing, Dr. Darsee admitted he had simply made up some of the data.
Dr. Stewart and Dr. Feder were so outraged that Dr. Darsee's blatant fraud had gone undetected for so long, both by his colleagues and by the medical journals which published his phony findings, that they set out to figure how he had gotten away with it.
The biomedical establishment was not especially eager to hear from the two about the inadequate way science guards against fraud.
It took them three years to get their findings about inadequate collegial supervision and poor editorial safeguards against fraud into print. They recently told the Chicago Tribune that the paper summarizing their findings was rejected by 16 different journals before the well-respected British science journal Nature published it in 1987.
Dr. Stewart and Dr. Feder spent more and more of their time examining possible instances of fraud, misconduct and plagiarism. They got more prestigious backs up when they got embroiled in confirming charges of fraud against David Baltimore, a Nobel Prize winner, the former head of MIT's Whitehead Institute as well as the former president of Rockefeller University in New York.
Dr. Baltimore and his associate, Thereza Imanishi-Kari, now at Tufts University, were accused by a young scholar of misrepresenting data in a paper they had co-authored. Dr. Stewart and Dr. Feder wrote a white paper backing up the charges. In 1991 Dr. Baltimore admitted that there were problems with the published study.
The NIH fraud-busters, however, found themselves on the receiving end of a fair amount of grumbling, criticism and upbraiding for their efforts by some within the biomedical community who thought them a bit too eager in their pursuit of a scientist of Dr. Baltimore's stature.
The final straw in the pair's decade-long career as the nation's premier whistle-blowers came last year when they designed a software package to help detect plagiarism. The program allows for a quick comparison between texts to see whether or not there is a large amount of duplication.
Some of those who have had their work subjected to the plagiarism program were none too happy with the results. They complained to the NIH and officials there finally decided to pull the plug on the in-house ethics activities.
NIH administrators do have the right to control what NIH employees do during their time at work. And it can be argued that there is no reason for the NIH to put up with two employees who spend large amounts of their time and energies crusading )) against fraud and misconduct.
Still, one would have hoped that the NIH could have come up with a more creative response than to try to force Dr. Stewart and Dr. Feder to swallow their whistles. Somewhere in the millions and millions of taxpayer dollars in the NIH budget there ought to be enough dough to keep two watchdogs on the payroll.
If officials at the NIH can't find the resources to keep Dr. Stewart and Dr. Feder doing what they have done so well for the past decade maybe Congress should encourage them to do so.
Arthur Caplan is director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Minnesota Medical School.