Scientific Antlers

Steven Shapin

  • The Baltimore Case: A Trial of Politics, Science and Character by Daniel Kevles
    Norton, 509 pp, £21.00, October 1998, ISBN 0 393 04103 4

It is a contemporary American morality play. The leading roles are played by an alpha male and his junior female colleague; bad behaviour between them is alleged; accusations of lying fly about; charges of cover-up garnish the original accusation; an ad hoc government investigative team runs amok, and due process is trampled underfoot; the credibility of the senior male is tarnished, and he is deemed unsuitable for high office; reputations are damaged; valued institutions are undermined; colleagues turn against each other and the whole affair has a poisonous effect on normal social relations. DNA evidence is crucial to the case, but all finally comes down to questions of intent which material evidence of deeds cannot unambiguously decide. Ultimately, many in the audience to whom the drama played for so long weary of it and wonder whether the chase has been worth the quarry, yet all are agreed that both the alleged bad behaviour and the means of making it accountable are deeply symptomatic of the state into which America has got itself.

The affair is not what it seems, however. It is not Presidential politics but esoteric science. The part of Bill Clinton is here played by the Nobel Prize-winning scientist David Baltimore and the junior female colleague is not Monica Lewinsky but a Japanese-Brazilian-American immunologist named Thereza Imanishi-Kari. Their relations are not sexual but wholly collegial. The out-of-control independent counsel is not Kenneth Starr but a posse partly made up of the self-appointed scientific fraud-busters Walter Stewart and Ned Feder and their patron, the Democratic Congressman John Dingell. For the excellent Linda Tripp with her concealed tape-recorder read Imanishi-Kari’s young Irish-American co-worker at MIT, Margot O’Toole, and the 17 pages of laboratory entries she decided to copy from a colleague’s notebook – just in case an accusation of criminal wrongdoing should emerge. Both affairs are modern American tragedies (and farces), and both testify eloquently to widespread crises in trust, civility and cultural authority.

In Immuno-gate, as in Monica-gate, public moral and legal mountains rise up from what originally seemed molehills of petty, and usually private, events. The biggest-ever inquiry into alleged scientific fraud lasted almost ten years. It absorbed hundreds of hours of investigative time by Congressional committees and panels of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and it mobilised some of the most sophisticated forensic lab work of the Secret Service. The cost to the Government must have run into millions of dollars, while the legal bills of the defence team would have been crippling had not much of their work been done on a pro bono basis. The final judgment – delivered by an Appeals Board of the Department of Health and Human Services on 21 June 1996 – was that none of the 19 charges of misconduct was proven ‘by a preponderance of the evidence’.

The precipitating occasion for all this was a paper published in the journal Cell on 25 April 1986. As is common in much modern Big Science, there were multiple authors, some of them more directly involved in the experimental work than others. The penultimate author was the 1975 Nobel laureate David Baltimore, then director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at MIT. By far the most senior of the six authors, Baltimore assumed – and was by others presumed to have – ultimate responsibility for work carried out in his and associated labs at MIT. That is why the affair was eventually called the Baltimore Case even though Baltimore himself was never formally charged with wrongdoing. Most of the research which came to be contested was done by Imanishi-Kari and several assistants. The whistle-blowing Margot O’Toole was a young postdoctoral fellow recently appointed in Imanishi-Kari’s lab, hoping for a tenure-track job, but, with a new baby and no dedicated grant support, understandably jittery about her career prospects.

In one of the many mundane miracles of modern life-science you can take a gene coding for a specific antibody from one highly inbred strain of mice (white) and stick it into the fertilised egg of another strain (black). That ‘transgene’ comes to be carried in each cell of the host mouse’s body, and you can easily see why there should be much practical as well as conceptual interest in exactly what the transgene then does. The experimental design here stands proxy for therapeutic interventions – cures for cancer? – years down the medical road.

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