An astonishing settlement by Duke University with the federal government received minimal coverage.Duke agreed to pay $112.5 million to settle claims that it knowingly submitted false data in federal grant work that brought in $200 million to the university for research. The false data, which resulted in the retraction of 17 of 38 research articles on the grant research, came to light as a result of a whistleblower, former Duke biologist, Joseph Thomas. Mr. Thomas will receive 30% of the #112.5 million, as provided under the False Claims Act and his qui tam claim. Mr. Thomas was a former lab analyst who reported the false data submitted to obtain and retain grants from the National Institutes of Health and the EPA. The false data were submitted over a seven-year period.
Erin Potts-Kant was the pulmonary researcher involved, and the Duke internal investigation into the false data issue began when she was arrested for embezzling $15,000 from Duke. Ms. Potts-Kant entered a guilty plea and has repaid the funds to Duke.
Interestingly, when Mr. Thomas raised the issue of the false data to the federal government, it declined to be involved in the suit. Mr. Thomas and his lawyers carried the suit through on their own with the Feds stepping in only at the last minute on settlement negotiations. There were over 300 motions and other court filings in the case, which began in 2013.
You better believe that universities around the country are now taking a hard look at federally funded research grants for irregularities. Duke has established a committee to develop new recommendations for research integrity and grant administration and oversight. The panel’s work is due June 30. Duke’s leadership is going about reform all wrong.
Duke might begin by looking at its culture of research. As Ms. Potts-Kant explained in her deposition, “Everyone needed a grant. Everyone needed money,” and that she falsified data “because researchers would be more happy if they could get a grant.” She also noted that the principal investigators on the research projects were “very vocal” about the pressure they felt to get and keep grants. One researcher explained in testimony before Duke’s Ad Hoc Investigation Committee, “if she (Potts-Kant) keeps brining good data, we get funded, she keeps her job, she gets a raise, everybody’s happy.”
Culture trumps integrity, ethics, and even federal regulations. Start there, not with new platitudes on research integrity.