The May 17 front-page article "20 Years Later, Stolen Gene Haunts a Biotech Pioneer" illustrates the high stakes sometimes involved in scientific research. Perhaps not generally known is that scientists are not licensed by any authority.
Scientist Peter Seeburg has admitted that he stole certain material in 1978 from the University of California at San Francisco to further his work at Genentech and that his subsequent work for Genentech involved lies of various kinds. Mr. Seeburg, described as "one of the world's most eminent molecular biologists" and "now an accomplished researcher in Germany," has implicated David Goeddel and Axel Ullrich in at least some of his misdeeds. Mr. Goeddel, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, has denied misconduct.
What, if anything, might happen to Mr. Goeddel? It's not as if Mr. Goeddel's license to practice science could be suspended or revoked.
Even though the integrity of a scientist's conduct may have consequences measurable in terms of a billion dollars, as in the Genentech case, no mechanism exists whereby the unfit can be barred from practicing science. Yes, editorial boards of scientific journals have standards, and the federal government has the power to investigate and, in a sense, punish certain forms of misconduct in federally funded research. But science has no remedy analogous to disbarment of unfit lawyers or yanking the licenses of unfit physicians.
Maybe the Genentech case will provoke a serious look at the possibility of licensing persons to practice science and the establishment and enforcement of standards of practice.
CLIFFORD E. SNYDER JR.