The scientific process is the painstaking exercise that medical researchers go through to ferret fact from fiction, to shed light on the unknown. In recent years, the public's faith in that process has been eroded by reports of fabrication of research results and other abuses.

The National Institutes of Health defends the importance of maintaining the integrity of that process. Now, NIH's leadership is concerned that unless the agency demonstrates its commitment to protecting animals used in medical research, public support for research may suffer. The importance of prompt action was underscored by the flagrant disregard of federal guidelines on animal use that were uncovered at the City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, Calif.

The abuses came to light following a break-in at the facility last December by members of the Animal Liberation Front, who stole 100 animals. At the time, an ALF spokesman, Ingrid Newkirk, told a news conference: "Autopsy reports confiscated during the raid show that Hope leaves severely ill or dying animals in their cages completely unattended and without pain relief. No care is given dogs and other animals who lie dying with distended stomachs and bleeding throats that are burning and choking from Croton oil, a cancer-causing, caustic agent, that is poured down their throats."

*On Aug. 2 NIH announced that it was suspending federal funding for 31 projects at the City of Hope for "serious noncompliance with the Public Health Service animal welfare policy, including veterinary care, physical environment for the animals and administrative oversight." The grants totaled almost $5 million.

What disturbed NIH officials so much about abuses at the City of Hope is that the federal agency relies on the word of its grantees, through their signing of an animal welfare assurance statement, that they will abide by federal requirements when conducting research involving animals. Based on the findings of inspection teams from the City of Hope and NIH, researchers there violated that assurance statement.

"This is the first instance where NIH has suspended funding of a large number of projects because of concern over an institution's general approach toward the use of animals in research," said Dr. William F. Raub, deputy director of the federal agency for extramural research and training.