Congress turns the spotlight on science

As delays in the university and government investigations of the Darsee case drew allegations of a cover-up, the resulting publicity stimulated congressional interest.16 This phase represented action within what

Bruce LR Smith calls the third sphere of the accountability of science.17 Scientists are initially accountable to their colleagues, operating according to the internally-generated norms that underpin the system of self-governance. Superimposed on this, Smith points out, is a level of "professionalized management" and "formal administrative structures", usually as part of universities; and then, finally, a "layer of public accountability". In the US prior to the 1980s, this third layer included laws and regulations relating to fiscal accountability, treatment of human subjects and animals, environmental quality, or national security, but not specifically to the personal integrity of researchers.18

The first formal congressional attention to scientific misconduct took place in two hearings on 31 March and 1 April 1981.19 Albert Gore, then chairman of a subcommittee of the House of Representatives' Committee on Science and Technology, opened the hearing by stating, "We need to discover whether recent incidents are merely episodes that will drift into the history of science as footnotes, or whether we are creating situations and incentives in the biomedical sciences, and in all of 'Big Science', that make such cases as these 'the tip of the iceberg'."19 "At the base of our investment in research", he continued, "lies the trust of the American people and the integrity of the scientific enterprise."19

A legislative hearing may seem a strange format in which to address topics like "trust" and "integrity" but it is actually well-suited to such discussions - especially when "no law has been violated", but there has been "an apparent betrayal of public trust".20 As one political scientist explains, "By focusing on ethics rather than legality", legislative inquiries can help to crystallise political opinion about expected performance or acceptable goals and stimulate bureaucratic or institutional change.20

Chairs of legislative committees like Gore's, which are charged with authorisation (essentially the determination of an agency's overall mission and programmes) or oversight (monitoring an agency's fulfilment of that mission), wield power through press attention and political pressure. In the US, the process of "legislative oversight" (as opposed to passing laws or appropriating money) has grown alongside an expanding Presidency and federal bureaucracy.21 As science and technology agencies like the National Science Foundation and NIH had grown throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the congressional scrutiny had kept pace.

The senior government officials who testified in the 1981 hearing seemed often oblivious to the legislators' concerns. Philip Handler, President of the National Academy of Sciences, called the issue "grossly exaggerated"; officials from the NIH echoed this assessment and denied the existence of widespread fraud in biomedical research.19 When legislators expressed surprise that the agency had continued to fund scientists accused of wrongdoing - and even some who had been found guilty - the bureaucrats (a few of whom were scientists themselves) explained that the policy avoided "blacklisting" researchers who might be acquitted, even though it temporarily rewarded those later proven guilty.19 As the hearing progressed, members of Congress angrily criticised this policy, warning that there is no political "entitlement" to uninterrupted federal funding, even for the most worthy scientist.19

Scientific fraud was still far from being a substantial political controversy, however. In 1981, Congress simply urged the scientific agencies and their grantees to investigate and resolve allegations swiftly and fairly, and to prevent future occurrences. Unfortunately, many in the mainstream scientific community greeted congressional interest as unreasonable, unwarranted, and restrictive of scientific freedom. The legislators, of course, knew that they had both a right and a responsibility to oversee federal activities and that their questions had been consistent with that role.

Complicating any political inquiry was the historic fragmentation of scientific research throughout the federal government, a situation mirrored on Capitol Hill. The House of Representatives committee that conducted the 1981 hearing had been assigned responsibility for reviewing laws, programmes, and government activities dealing with or involving nonmilitary research and development; but a different House committee, chaired from the 1980s until 1995 by Democrat John Dingell of Michigan, oversaw the Department of Health and Human Services (and therefore the NIH). In the Senate, attention to science was similarly dispersed among several committees. Because even today no single committee has jurisdiction over all of science, no congressional hearing can presume to look at the issue of "scientific misconduct" in its entirety, only at those cases or issues related to the committee's jurisdiction. Instead, Congress, like the agencies who fund the research, has tended to approach the issue piecemeal, even though it clearly affects all parts of the research system.

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