Duke University reported in January that its scientists won $384.6 million last year from the National Institutes of Health, “ranking 9th in the country among universities, research institutions and teaching hospitals that are awarded the taxpayer-based research dollars.”
This week, they had to give some of it back.
Duke has agreed to pay $112.5 million to the U.S. Government to settle a suit brought by a whistleblowing lab tech. The case involves another research technician who fabricated data from 2006 to 2013. The findings were used in applications for some of those NIH-funded studies.
The government investigation began after Joseph M. Thomas brought a qui tam case under the False Claims Act. Thomas’s share of the settlement will be $33,750,000.
The Justice Department announcement quoted U.S. Attorney Matthew G.T. Martin saying that taxpayers expect federal grant dollars will be used honestly.
“Individuals and institutions that receive research funding from the federal government must be scrupulous in conducting research for the common good and rigorous in rooting out fraud,” the statement notes. “May this serve as a lesson that the use of false or fabricated data in grant applications or reports is completely unacceptable.”
NIH is expected to fund $39.2 billion in research in fiscal year 2018, mostly at universities, medical centers and hospitals. It is a primary source of funding for academic medical research.
The DOJ announcement notes “The claims settled by this agreement are allegations only, and there has been no determination of liability.” However, court filings have revealed that the researcher admitted to faking data.
Thomas was interviewed this week for a piece in Medscape Medical News by Ivan Oransky. Co-founder of the blog “Retraction Watch,” Oransky has been following the case closely and reported on the retractions that followed – now up to 17 papers.
In retelling the tale, Thomas said that staff started reviewing the technician’s work after she was caught stealing money. She later admitted to botching lung function test in rats exposed to pollution in the Airway Physiology Laboratory. Duke said it was investigating the case, but Thomas told Medscape he didn’t think they were doing enough.
Thomas knew that the … data were somehow involved in grants worth tens of millions of dollars, and he “became frustrated with the pace and the attitude of the internal investigation, as well as the apparent far-reaching impact.” He thought about talking to the media about what he’d seen.
Instead, he talked to his brother, a lawyer in working at a firm interested in False Claims Act cases. He told Medscape that “if I pursued a legal route, it could potentially give more context to what had happened — but more importantly it be a mechanism for addressing the broader underlying issues with scientific misconduct and help enact a positive change.”
Like many whistleblowers, Thomas, who left Duke in 2014, says his case put his career in jeopardy. From Medscape:
“It was a long and difficult process personally,” he said. “I was unemployed for a year, and my future in science was questionable.”
Now, Thomas told Medscape, he wants to now work as an advocate for both whistleblowers and scientific integrity.