Is science facing its Watergate?

This year, the scientific world was swept by charges of fraud, misconduct and data manipulation.A court convicted a noted scientist of faking his research. A federal panel probed alleged monkey business in a Nobel winner's lab. Two self-appointed investigators scoured scientific articles for signs of deceit. The late explorer Robert Peary was accused of lying about having reached the North Pole in 1909. And Congress held hearings on laboratory hanky-panky and threatened a crackdown on those who try to misrepresent Mother Nature.

Now there's a backlash: Some scientists accuse the two investigators of "McCarthyism," of acting "messianic," and of being "grand inquisitors."

And science could suffer if Washington starts policing labs, warn officials at universities, scientific institutions and research hospitals.

"Scientists worry this will (lead to) a very rigid set of bureaucratic regulations that will remove the flexibility of science," said Harvard Medical School Professor Bernard Davis. "Are we going to go around and snoop in people's (scientific record) books?"

Scientific fraud seems much worse now than it did in 1926, when Austrian biologist Paul Kammerer ascended a mountain path, pulled out a pistol and shot himself in the head.

Several weeks earlier, he had been suspected of faking his research on toads. Specifically, he was suspected of injecting the toads with ink in order to create illusory "pads" on their skin and, thereby, "prove" a dubious theory of inheritance.

His career destroyed, Kammerer chose death. His suicide note read: "Perhaps my worthy academic colleagues will discover in my brain a trace of the qualities they found absent from the manifestations of my mental activities while I was alive."

Until recently, cases like Kammerer's seemed to be extremely rare. People could imagine politicians lying, or advertisers or car dealers - but scientists? Scientists were devoted to the objective, dispassionate pursuit of truth . . . .

Or so it seemed.

But in the early 1970s, a researcher at New York City's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center took a felt-tip pen and marked little black patches on white mice. His goal: to fool his colleagues into thinking he had transplanted tissue from dark-haired mice onto white mice without encountering tissue rejection.

His colleagues weren't fooled, so Dr. William T. Summerlin was booted out of science forever. At last report, he was practicing medicine somewhere in Louisiana.

The Sloan-Kettering case was followed by many other exposes of scientists, living and dead, who had cooked the scientific books. When asked the inevitable question - "Why did you do it?" - many told a depressingly similar story: They had felt "overworked" and pressured to produce impressive results.

Recent cases include:

- Stephen Breuning. In September, a court convicted the former University of Pittsburgh psychologist of falsifying data on drugs (used to treat behavioral disorders in retarded children) as part of federally funded research. On Nov. 10, a U.S. district judge in Baltimore sentenced Breuning to 60 days in a halfway house, a stiff fine and 250 hours of community service.

- John Darsee, a researcher at Emory and Harvard universities who fabricated massive amounts of data that were later published in scientific journals. The most complete expose of Darsee was compiled by two self-appointed investigators from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Walter Stewart and Ned Feder.

Some cases are far less clear-cut.

For example, at MIT, a former worker in Nobel laureate David Baltimore's lab has stirred a fuss by questioning the validity of published research. The published articles seemed to contradict original scientific notes, she said.

This issue came to a head last April, when Reps. John Dingell, D-Michigan, and Ted Weiss, D-N.Y., held separate congressional hearings on scientific fraud and misconduct.

At the hearings, Stewart and Feder said they had studied 17 pages of the records and "concluded that the published paper (based on the records) contained a number of serious misrepresentations of scientific fact."

But Baltimore and other scientists insist the discrepancies are the result of differences of opinion. Baltimore himself isn't suspected of fraud, but his reputation has been at least temporarily jeopardized by the investigation of his ex-associate.