Science Community Divided On Stewart-Feder Shutdown

Reaction in the science community has been impassioned and partisan over the April 9 decision at the National Institutes of Health to "reassign" scientists Walter Stewart and Ned Feder to new posts, effectively ending their independent scientific integrity research at the institutes. Stewart and Feder's self- initiated investigative work, conducted over the past decade, has sparked intense controversy at times and has been central to a number of high-profile misconduct cases. The pair's probe

May 17, 1993
Franklin Hoke

Reaction in the science community has been impassioned and partisan over the April 9 decision at the National Institutes of Health to "reassign" scientists Walter Stewart and Ned Feder to new posts, effectively ending their independent scientific integrity research at the institutes. Stewart and Feder's self- initiated investigative work, conducted over the past decade, has sparked intense controversy at times and has been central to a number of high-profile misconduct cases.

The pair's probes often have forced professional science to confront troubling issues. Some scientists have called Stewart and Feder's questioning improper, ill-informed, and destructive to both science and individual scientists. But others have welcomed the debates as part of a necessary, if often trying, process to renew and strengthen the scientific method, which they see as broadly undermined by considerations other than the pursuit of scientific truth.

On the first day of their forced reassignment, May 10, the two investigators were locked out of their former offices. To protest their ouster and the impoundment of their files, Stewart and Feder had moved their center of operations to a table on the lawn of the NIH campus. There, according to Stewart, they intended to continue--as best they could--work they had previously begun on a misconduct case.

Nobelist David Baltimore, who coauthored and later defended a 1986 Cell paper in which central data were charged by a postdoctoral researcher to have been faked, calls the NIH move "long overdue." Stewart and Feder's inquiries into the claims against the paper were crucial in keeping the matter before the public, and led to hearings before Rep. John Dingell's (D-Mich.) Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Persistent questions concerning the case were seen as an important factor in Baltimore's eventual resignation as president of Rockefeller University in New York in December 1991.

"Stewart and Feder have not usefully participated in the scientific enterprise for many, many years," Baltimore says. "And they have used government funds to harass people in a pretense of understanding fraudulent activities. They certainly harassed me."

He adds: "They didn't understand the scientific questions at issue nor the technical methodology that was involved, at least in the case I know best. And therefore they came to totally inappropriate conclusions.... They tried to be sleuths."

But Margot O'Toole, the scientist who originally raised the questions about the work behind the Cell paper, calls the contributions of Stewart and Feder to that case and others unique and indispensable. O'Toole, now a researcher with Genetics Institute Inc., Cambridge, Mass., sees larger issues at stake in the two men's efforts.

"They do two very important things," says O'Toole, "and they're the only two people in science who do them. One is that they promote a debate: They study cases and see how the principles of science are supposed to apply....And the other thing they do is provide evaluation and support for whistle-blowers."

As a result, O'Toole says, important questions are raised that otherwise might be ignored--as they sometimes were in the Baltimore case.

"For instance, are scientists supposed to correct claims that they know to be wrong?" she says. "Are scientists supposed to be accountable for the claims they make--in other words, respond to questions about them? Are they supposed to share data? Are they supposed to permit free and open debate? Are they supposed to examine the data before coming to conclusions?

"These are very basic, founding principles of science," O'Toole says, "but when they come up in a real-life case, people don't recognize them. What they recognize is that somebody is powerful, and somebody else isn't."

Stepping Outside Science On April 9, Stewart and Feder each received a letter from their immediate supervisor at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), L. Earl Laurence. The letter explained that their two-man Laboratory of Analytical Chemistry in the Biophysical Histology Section was being "abolished" as of May 1 and that they were being split up and "reassigned" to new positions.

The letter said, in part: "This action is being taken because the work that you . . . have been doing over the past several years in the area of scientific practice, including the analyses of plagiarism, has progressively moved outside the mission, responsibility, and authority of the NIDDK. At a time when this Institute's personnel resources are limited, it is essential that I take action to assure that they are focused on ... the conduct and support of biomedical research on the diseases within our mission."

It further stipulated that the pair's files should be turned over to the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) or to the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

What the letter did not say explicitly was that Stewart and Feder's accusations of plagiarism against historian Stephen B. Oates of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, had contributed to the action. And it is, in fact, still not possible to say what, if any, direct influence the Oates case had on Laurence's decision, although a connection is widely assumed among scientists, congressional staffers, and others. At press time, Laurence had not returned calls to his office.

NIDDK information officer Elizabeth Singer claims unequivocally that the decision to reassign the two was entirely Laurence's and taken for the reasons put forth in his letter. But she speculates that "the Oates affair certainly didn't help things."

Originally, the charge that Oates had plagiarized parts of his biography of Abraham Lincoln was raised by another historian in 1990. In May 1992, after a review of the matter, the American Historical Association (AHA) found Oates's book, With Malice Toward None (New York, Harper & Row, 1977), to be "derivative," but declined to call it plagiarism.

Stewart and Feder saw in the case an opportunity to test their so-called plagiarism machine--a system of scanning full texts into a computer so that the texts can then be quickly compared for similarities. In this case, the system was asked to search for repetitions of 30-character strings in more than 60 books.

The search turned up "hundreds of examples of verbatim copying," according to a letter by Stewart and Feder that accompanied materials supporting their charges submitted to Samuel R. Gammon, executive director of AHA, on February 25 this year.

Oates strongly rebutted the allegations in a March 31 press release, writing, "These two Federal government scientists, without training in the field, have concocted their own definition of plagiarism in historical and biographical writing and have judged me guilty of violating their definition."

He also wrote: "Stewart/Feder have gained considerable notoriety in the field of science, having charged misconduct against several scientists who were doing research with the assistance of Federal grants. But I am not a scientist working with a Federal government grant. I am a biographer without any ties whatever to the scientific community or to the Federal government."

Among questions Oates wanted addressed: "Does the NIH now allow its scientists to use NIH office time, NIH equipment, NIH stationery and paper, and NIH postage and phone privileges in order to mount a public attack against the integrity of a private citizen in the humanities?"

According to a Capitol Hill source who asks to remain anonymous, Oates also complained to his district's representative, John Olver (D-Mass.), Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.).

Simon, something of a Lincoln scholar himself, was acquainted with Oates. The senator wrote to NIH director Bernadine Healy on March 17 to ask about Stewart and Feder's use of NIH resources to investigate a case outside the NIH mission.

On April 27, after the April 9 NIH action, however, Simon wrote again, this time to Bryan B. Mitchell, principal deputy inspector general of HHS. Noting that he had not yet received a response to his letter to Healy, he now sought assurance that the confidentiality of Stewart and Feder's misconduct files would be protected and that "some entity will continue to carry out any part of their activities that is essential to the maintenance of high standards of scientific research at the National Institutes of Health."

He added: "I am not able to judge the work of Mr. Stewart and Dr. Feder on biomedical research. I inquired about their activities in regard to the Oates matter only."

Although NIH officials have not said so explicitly, the assumption that Stewart and Feder's intervention in the Oates plagiarism case brought about their reassignment is widespread among scientists.

"They got stupid enough to go after a historian on pretty ridiculous charges," says one Midwestern scientist whose work has been questioned by Stewart in the past. "I'm very happy this happened--it signals a better future for the young scientists coming along."

"In this case, they simply stepped outside of the scientific community to the historical community," says Baltimore, "and that gave the NIH the guts to do what they should have done years ago, which was stop their activities."

"There have been quite a few people at the NIH and outside who would really like to get rid of Stewart and Feder," says John Edsall, an emeritus professor of biochemistry at Harvard University. "Those people have won out. . . . The authorities who have done this have just seized upon this particular deviation into another field to use it as an excuse to get rid of them."

Improper Roles? Much of the debate concerning Stewart and Feder's inquiries into various cases revolves around whether or not they have the proper scholarly or legal standing to ask the questions that they ask. Those they accuse have asserted, at times, that Stewart and Feder do not sufficiently understand the fields into which they venture and have suggested that the two should restrict themselves to questions within their own scientific disciplines.

"But all scientists are also scholars," Stewart responds. "The question we have to answer is, are we going to answer our critics by looking at their credentials or their arguments? I simply say it's the tradition of science that arguments be addressed on their merits."

Some people also argue that, because Stewart and Feder are employees of NIH and, therefore, of the federal government, they ought not be engaged in the kind of independent investigative work they do. These complaints are made despite the fact that Stewart and Feder serve in no official investigative capacity and have no enforcement capability.

"Although they don't expressly assert that they're speaking with the imprimatur of the NIH, because they're identified as employees of the NIH, I think that's what the public reads," says Melany Stinson Newby, vice chancellor for legal and executive affairs at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Since 1989, Newby has interacted with successive NIH investigating offices--most recently ORI--as they reviewed allegations of misconduct against Wisconsin biochemists Hector DeLuca and Heinrich Schnoes. "What is it they're really supposed to be about? Are they supposed to be looking over the shoulder of the ORI?"

Newby adds: "This is the federal government, for heaven's sake! I worry that an entity which is subject to the constitutional provisions of not being able to deny somebody life, liberty, or property without due process has such carte blanche."

But others say that Stewart and Feder have more in common with the whistle-blowers they have so often supported than with the official investigating bodies. As such, they ought to be protected from reprisals by their employers--such as having their office abolished and being reassigned--so as to protect continued open scientific debate. These people also see evident value to science in Stewart and Feder's work.

"They're high-level, or second-level, whistle-blowers," says Martin Kruskal, a professor of mathematics at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J. "And if you stomp on somebody who's blown the whistle, everybody else is afraid to do anything."

"[Stewart and Feder] are definitely whistle-blowers," says O'Toole. "They've been very effective critics of science and of the NIH. And it's been to the NIH's credit that they've recognized the necessity of allowing dissent, up until this point. They've never really liked it, but they've recognized its importance."

Stewart sees a very clear distinction between his and Feder's activities and those of the authorities investigating misconduct under government grants.

"We ask questions not by virtue of where people get their support," he says, "but by virtue of the fact that they have offered their work to the public as scholars. And that entitles us, as scholars, to ask certain questions--to which, to be fair about it, they're entitled not to reply. . . . There is a completely different group of people, the ORI, which has responsibility vis-a-vis the federal funding of scientists. But we don't work for them, and we have nothing to do with them."

Bernard Davis, an emeritus professor of bacterial physiology at Harvard who is writing a book about the Baltimore case, says that while Stewart and Feder's early work spurred valuable discussions in the scientific community, their later efforts focused on more trivial issues.

Davis cites with approval, for instance, their study of Harvard's John Darsee, found by NIH in 1983 to have faked data in heart disease studies, and the failure of his coauthors to detect internal inconsistencies in papers bearing their names. "But they moved from an open, legitimate, sound analysis in that first case to ones that were less sound and more destructive," Davis says. "And they were using facilities that they should not have been empowered to use that way. I think the NIH made a mistake in not drawing the line immediately. But administrators don't like to be severe in a place like the NIH."

"Their original paper on the Darsee case did, in my mind, raise some very interesting and important issues," says Baltimore. "But they carried [their activities] to a ridiculous extreme and lost perspective, so that they became a danger to the scientific community rather than interesting analysts."

"We've always worked simply as professional scientists," replies Stewart, "whose only power comes from the power to convince. And that's what we prefer. We've never aspired to a job where we would have any other sort of power."

Fighting Back Stewart and Feder are hoping to have the decision to abolish their office reversed on the grounds that the action was neither fair nor in accordance with NIH personnel policy.

To Laurence, in an April 12 memo, they noted that they had received "excellent" ratings on recent performance evaluations that explicitly included their misconduct work; that they had received approval for the purchase of $9,500 worth of new computer hardware for their work only three weeks prior to the decision; and that they had not been told in advance of any problems in their work nor given a chance to remedy those problems.

They added: "You told us [verbally] that some officials wanted us investigated and fired, and that other officials wanted us just fired. You refused to identify these officials. This is not fair."

To NIDDK director Phillip Gorden, in an April 13 memo, they wrote that supervisor Laurence was aware of the work they were doing on the Oates case, including their plan to send their findings to Oates and AHA. "We received his spoken approval for our action," they wrote.

It is not clear, under NIH policy, that Stewart and Feder have grounds to appeal an internal transfer that does not reduce their salary or grade. Nor, so far, have NIH officials indicated their willingness to review the decision.

Letters from scientists and others interested in the case have been flowing into the offices of HHS secretary Donna Shalala and various NIH and congressional offices. Among these was a May 4 letter supporting Stewart and Feder from Dingell's subcommittee. But what the outcome will be is not yet clear.

"They have a much better [investigations] track record than some of the federal agencies," says Robert Sprague, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. "I guess they are less intimidated by powerful people who are, somehow, doing the wrong thing than the federal agencies are. That sounds crazy, but that seems to be the situation." Sprague received support from the two when he accused University of Pittsburgh psychologist Stephen Breuning of publishing false claims concerning psychotropic medication of mentally retarded people. Breuning pleaded guilty to academic fraud-related charges in United States District Court in Maryland on Nov. 10, 1988.

"The Baltimore case has been a tragedy with many victims," says Davis, "and they are among them. They started with a great deal of credibility and approval from the scientific community, and they've lost their credibility by the kind of judgment shown, most conspicuously in the Oates case, but actually present in other cases."

"I have been, from the beginning, a little more dubious about this [plagiarism] machine than about most of their other activities," says Edsall. "But I am definitely on the side of Stewart and Feder, even though they have trespassed beyond the ordinary bounds, certainly, of what they should be doing. This order to dissolve their activities and hand over their files is quite wrong."