Duke University has agreed to pay $112.5 million to the U.S. government to settle a lawsuit alleging that a research technician falsified data for several years to obtain federal grants, university officials announced Monday.
Attorneys for the whistleblower in the case called it the largest-ever recovery for research grant fraud challenged under the federal False Claims Act.
A former employee of Duke raised concerns that led to the case in 2014 in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. The lawsuit came after the university found a research technician had embezzled federal grant funds — but before university officials realized that data had been fabricated. The technician pleaded guilty to two counts of forgery and paid restitution to Duke, according to university officials.
The research technician in Duke’s Airway Physiology Laboratory submitted falsified data with applications and progress reports for federal grants to the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency, according to the Justice Department.
“Taxpayers expect and deserve that federal grant dollars will be used efficiently and honestly,” Matthew G.T. Martin, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, said in a Justice Department statement. “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. May this serve as a lesson that the use of false or fabricated data in grant applications or reports is completely unacceptable.”
Joseph Thomas, who had been a research analyst at Duke, was concerned about the potential extent of the fraud and became a whistleblower; his attorneys in a written statement praised his courage in stepping forward and his tenacity over the years of the case.
Attorneys for Thomas could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.
“We expect Duke researchers to adhere always to the highest standards of integrity, and virtually all of them do that with great dedication,” Duke’s president, Vincent E. Price, wrote in an email announcement to the campus. “When individuals fail to uphold those standards, and those who are aware of possible wrongdoing fail to report it, as happened in this case, we must accept responsibility, acknowledge that our processes for identifying and preventing misconduct did not work, and take steps to improve.”
The university’s three-year investigation of the experiments, which measured the lung function of laboratory mice, found fabricated data from 2006 to 2013, Price wrote.
Thirty grants arose from the falsified data, Michael Schoenfeld, a spokesman for Duke, said Monday, and 14 research papers have been retracted.
Price went on to describe some of the steps taken to improve research integrity, including required plans and training and the appointment of Geeta Swamy as associate vice provost and vice dean for scientific integrity. He also described measures the school intends to implement, such as a new advisory panel that will present recommendations to the president by the end of June and an executive oversight committee that will monitor efforts to promote a culture of “excellence and accountability” at Duke.
In his message to campus, Price said, “This settlement, which results primarily from willful misconduct that took place in one laboratory, but which affected the work of many more researchers, should not diminish the life-changing and life-saving work that takes place every day at Duke. Our difficulties in ferreting out and ending such misconduct remind us that important work remains to be done.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.