The National Institutes of Health recently awarded nearly $100,000 to a University of Kansas scientist despite an ongoing internal investigation into charges that he had previously misspent federal funds and violated rules for conducting research on human subjects.
House science investigations subcommittee chairman Albert Gore Jr., in a letter this week to Health and Human Services Secretary Richard S. Schweiker, criticized the grant renewal as "outrageous" in light of questions raised about anthropologist Michael Crawford's research.
Rep. Gore (D-Tenn.) said an NIH preliminary review had "already confirmed allegations that Dr. Crawford has misused previous grant monies" from the National Institute of Dental Research and violated "regulations governing the protection of human subjects."
A draft report obtained by Gore's subcommittee indicates that NIH investigators have found numerous violations in research conducted by Crawford in 1976 in a field study in Belize, Central America.
The report concludes that Crawford elicited "kickbacks from salaries of research workers," made false statements, and applied "improper charges" to the study of "Dental Evolution of Transplanted Mexican Populations" from separate research involving sickle cell anemia. A staff recommendation suggests that the University of Kansas return nearly $25,000 in federal funds.
Preliminary staff findings, said Gore, also found that Crawford took unauthorized blood samples from more than 500 children, putting them at additional risk, and used unproven genetic screening and counseling procedures.
Nonetheless, Gore complained, another NIH research agency, the National Institute on Aging, proceeded in July with the final funding phase of a Crawford project on the aging of Mennonites.
NIH officials acknowledged yesterday that the Crawford case essentially fell through the cracks of newly designed procedures for calling attention to research proposals from scientists under investigation for possible misuse of federal funds. Although scientific research has generally been free from public scandal in the past, congressional scrutiny this year has unearthed several cases of fraud and abuse.
Gore's "criticisms are well taken," said Dr. William Raub, NIH associate director for extramural research and training. "In hindsight, it's clear that the matter would have been simpler had we been able to conclude the investigation before the grant was renewed."
Raub said that improvements in the NIH system are planned to "flag" problem cases like that of Crawford in order to determine whether additional grants should be delayed or subject to special conditions. He said the Crawford investigation was expected to be completed shortly.
A lawyer for Crawford, who is suing several graduate students and faculty members for "defamation of character" because of the charges, generally denied the allegations under study. He complained that investigations of Crawford's conduct had been dragged out over a period of several years, but he was as yet unaware of the latest NIH findings.
Dr. Frances Horowitz of the University of Kansas said that an earlier campus investigation had found "some ground" to allegations against Crawford and that some disciplinary steps had already been taken. He remains in his post as professor of anthropology and director of the Laboratory of Biological Anthropology.
Horowitz added, however, that if the NIH study "suggests violations of a much graver nature" the university will consider further action and repay the government if the "wrongdoing" is documented.