WASHINGTON—The research establishment has beaten back Congress’s most serious attempt yet to grab control of investigations and punishment of scientific misconduct. But the victory may be shortlived unless scientists can demonstrate greater will and prowess in policing their own house.

The latest threat to the autonomy of universities and other research institutions was a last-minute congressional proposal to create an independent Office of Scientific Integrity. The measure was drafted by the staff of two influential House members, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairmen of the House committee and subcommittee that oversee the National Institutes of Health.

The two men offered their changes as an amendment to a bill authorizing ongoing and new programs at NIH. It turned out tobe the wrong strategy. The overall NIH bill contained several controversial provisions, including language on the use of fetal tissue in research that the Senate refused to accept;...

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