The Angelides Affair

A dispute over research fraud has split the faculty at Baylor College of Medicine, and could jeopardize the way universities police scientific misconduct

When a scientist is accused of cheating, a nasty bout of finger-pointing and blame- shifting often ensues. The professional performance of accusers is scrutinized, personal lives are explored and potentially embarrassing skeletons are pulled from the closet. No one is immune to these tactics. The Angelides case is no different.

The formal charges of scientific misconduct were brought against Angelides in 1992 by Dr. Arthur M. "Buzz" Brown, who was chairman of Baylor's department of physiology and Angelides's boss at the time. Brown, who has since left Baylor to direct a research institution in Cleveland, Ohio, won't discuss the Angelides case. As the charges were being made, two junior scientists in Angelides's lab -- Mark Lewallen and Barbara Wible -- provided supporting testimony.

In his lawsuit against Baylor, Angelides's civil attorney, James V. Pianelli, accuses Brown, Lewallen and Wible of conspiring against his client, each for his or her own reasons of "bias and malice." Lewallen "harbored deep animosity" toward Angelides, his former supervisor, blaming Angelides for his failure to complete a doctoral program at Baylor, the lawsuit claims. In deposition testimony for the case, Pianelli contends Wible was a scorned former lover of Angelides who turned on him after Angelides married another woman, his current wife. (Angelides's previous wife, with whom he had two sons, is an administrative assistant at Rice University.) Through their attorneys, Wible and Lewallen declined to comment for this story.

Baylor hasn't bought this line of reasoning; it conducted an additional probe that cleared Wible and Lewallen of blame. But some supporters of Angelides have, showing the deep split the case has created in the college's faculty. Jeffrey Rosen, a prominent member of Baylor's cell biology department, the college's largest research division, wrote a letter in early 1995 to top officials, saying he was "horrified" at the treatment of Angelides.

"The termination undermined the faith of the faculty and the administration at Baylor and seriously jeopardized the concept of collegiality," Rosen is quoted in a deposition as having written. But Baylor officials such as Dr. Robert R. Rich, a vice president and dean of research, have defended the college's probe as fair and appropriate. The evidence, Rich has testified in a deposition, overwhelmingly supported the conclusion that Angelides was "guilty of scientific misconduct."

One common thread in many cases of scientific misconduct is that the accused cheater had previously gotten into trouble but was allowed to quietly move on to another institution. Indeed, prior to his arrival at Baylor, Angelides's veracity had been questioned at two universities.

In 1980, in the early days of his career, Angelides was accused at one of Canada's most prestigious institutions of fabricating his academic record and claiming publication of scientific articles that hadn't been printed. And his scientific claims also raised questions four years later at the University of Florida, where he worked before joining Baylor. But there were no formal charges against Angelides at either of those institutions, and he has denied any improprieties.

The NIH now requires universities receiving federal funds to have procedures for investigating allegations of scientific misconduct. A university screens complaints to make sure they aren't spurious attacks, sets up a committee of its experts to review worthy allegations and makes decisions about any impropriety. Universities also are to ensure that anyone blowing the whistle on a colleague isn't subjected to retaliation, which can easily occur because the whistleblower is often a junior scientist who is precariously vulnerable.

Then a university's report and actions are reviewed by a special agency associated with the NIH, the Office of Research Integrity, which makes the decision on punishment for an offending researcher. The most serious NIH sanction is a cutoff in grants. Last year, ORI ruled that 17 researchers nationally had committed research misconduct.

This entire process is being thrown into question now by Angelides's civil lawsuit, federal and university officials say. Angelides filed his lawsuit in state court, but Baylor and the federal government maintain that it should be in federal court. The matter of where the lawsuit is to be heard seems like an arcane legal point of little importance. But in this case, the court with jurisdiction makes a big difference.

The reason is that if accused scientists can sue in state court, universities and federal authorities fear no one would want to participate in misconduct reviews. "It is very important for us to protect institutions and their officials that carry out scientific misconduct investigations," said Chris B. Pascal, the acting director of the Office of Research Integrity in suburban Maryland outside Washington, D.C. "If an institution and its committees of scientists are held liable for reporting to ORI, who would write a report and put their name on it? They wouldn't do it anymore."

At the Association of American Medical Colleges -- the trade group for 400 medical schools and 90 professional societies nationally -- there is equal concern. "Universities are fearful that they and their faculty who serve on committees will be at risk for being endlessly tied up in litigation," said Joseph A. Keyes Jr., the association's general counsel.

For these reasons, the NIH, the association and Baylor maintain those who ferret out scientific misconduct should be immune from civil lawsuits in state courts. "The conflicting state and federal requirements give rise to an absolute privilege of [Baylor and its scientists] from liability for reporting scientific misconduct, since private parties carrying out federally mandated duties should not be put in an untenable position between such requirements," wrote John P. Schnitker, an assistant U.S. Attorney General in Washington, in his brief supporting Baylor.

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