NSABP Investigation Threatens Academic Freedom for All: Fisher

August 1, 1995

MIAMI BEACH, Fla--"The future of the NSABP [National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project] can't be built upon rejection of the past," said Bernard Fisher, MD, Distinguished Service Professor of Surgery, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

MIAMI BEACH, Fla--"The future of the NSABP [National SurgicalAdjuvant Breast and Bowel Project] can't be built upon rejectionof the past," said Bernard Fisher, MD, Distinguished ServiceProfessor of Surgery, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Although friends and colleagues have urged Dr. Fisher to forgetthe past and "get on with his life," he remains determinedto set the record straight on the investigation that led, lastyear, to his ouster as NSABP chairman. At stake, he believes,are larger issues pertaining to academic freedom and due process.

Speaking at the 12th Annual International Breast Cancer Conference,Dr. Fisher described the Kafkaesque chain of events that followedthe NSABP's report to the NCI of its investigation into falsifieddata from one physician at one hospital in Canada.

The Office of Research Integrity invoked an embargo while it conductedits investigation, so that for 2½ years, no one was allowedto discuss the problem publicly. "They felt quite comfortablethat there was no crisis," he said.

Dr. Fisher maintains that the falsified entry data, which involveda small number of patients (99 out of 33,885 in 22 studies) anddid not affect trial results when the data were removed, was merelythe catalyst that set off a number of groups--Congressman Dingellfrom Michigan (former chairman of the House Energy and CommerceSubcommittee on Oversight and Investigation), the media, the Officeof Research Integrity, the University of Pittsburgh, and certainwomen's activist groups--who used the investigation to fulfilltheir own agendas.

He feels that due process was ignored during the investigationand academic freedom compromised. "The most disappointingthing is that the University of Pittsburgh officials chose notto confront either Congressman Dingell or the frightened staffof the NCI," he said, "and abandoned a faculty memberduring a crisis."

First amendment rights were also threatened in that any paperswritten by Dr. Fisher were to be reviewed in advance by the Universityof Pittsburgh and the NCI. "We were told where to publish,how to publish, when to publish . . . and that was an egregiousbreach of academic freedom," he said.

Almost by accident, Dr. Fisher discovered that the term "scientificmisconduct" had been appended to all papers carrying hisname in the federal government's electronic computer networks(MEDLARS, MEDLINE, PDQ, etc), including papers that did not involvethe falsified data, even right down to a thought piece by Dr.Fisher that included no data at all.

Dr. Fisher said that in response to his lawsuit about these actions,a court order was issued in March 1995 demanding removal of thelabels and correction of all databases, but this order has notbeen completely fulfilled to date.

He urged the audience not to think of the NSABP as a "taintedorganization." The so-called administrative deficienciesin the NSABP audit program amounted to minor delays in submissionof some reports, he said, and the project's research results haveheld up under the scrutiny.

"The NSABP has been very successful and has made some ofthe most important contributions to breast cancer research inthe last hundred years," Dr. Fisher stressed. "Onlythose with guilt strive to forget the past."