On September 11, The U.S. Department of Justice announced an agreement for The Scripps Research Institute to pay $10 million to resolved allegations that it misused funds the National Institutes for Health had provided for medical research.
Instead of devoting their time entirely to the studies their grants were funding, researchers spent time “developing, preparing, and writing new grant applications, teaching, and engaging in other administrative activities.” A former tenured professor at TSRI, Dr. Thomas Burris acted as a whistleblower in the case and will receive a $1.75 million reward.
A high-pressure environment focused on generating revenue
The Scripps Research Institute is a non-profit biomedical research center with campuses in Jupiter, Florida and La Jolla, California. The highly regarded institute receives millions of dollars in grants from NIH every year. However, the activity within its walls was not consistent with its public image.
Dr. Burris, who served at the Jupiter campus from September 2008 through December 2013 in the field of molecular therapeutics, described a high-pressure environment where researchers were expected to generate enough income from grants to pay their entire salary. So, instead of exclusively performing the research the grants were paying for, much of a researcher’s time was spent soliciting additional funds and performing other duties, such as teaching.
According to Prof. Burris, researchers at the La Jolla and Jupiter facilities routinely spent 20 and 50 percent of their working time on grant proposal activity. Prof. Burris obtained eight federal research grants totaling more than $10 million, but was still driven to submit at least 18 other grant applications that came to naught.
Although tenured, Dr. Burris left TSRI because, as he stated in his complaint, “It is virtually impossible for a faculty member to legitimately charge 100% of his or her working hours to awarded grants, because all active medical and scientific faculty are required to apply for new research grants every year and many of the faculty have teaching and other administrative responsibilities in connection with the Scripps Ph.D. program.”
The fraud case against TSRI
Each year, NIH provides about $8 billion in grants for medical research. Grants are meticulously detailed about how the award money will be spent. Grants are not generally available to underwrite the administration and basic operations of a research institute. By diverting grant funds to pay for non-research tasks, TSRI committed fraud. Since NIH is an agency of the federal government, that fraud triggered the False Claims Act, allowing private citizens with unique, nonpublic knowledge of fraud to file a lawsuit on behalf of the government. FCA also allows the whistleblower to collect 15 to 30 percent of the government’s recovery as a reward.
Dr. Burris filed his suit in May 2015, alleging that TSRI made false representation in their grant applications and had a “soft money” policy where researchers covered 100 percent of their salary via grants and then “volunteered” to teach. As a result, NIH was defrauded of 20 to 50 percent of the funds awarded to TSRI.
Protecting the mission of NIH
NIH is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Its mission “is to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.”
Given the current global health crisis, that mission is more vital than ever, and the Department of Justice has a clear mandate to protect the integrity of NIH grants. Maureen R. Dixon, Special Agent in Charge, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General, commented, “Taxpayers funds for medical research are finite and the need for scientific advances is great; therefore, it’s critical that these resources are used as intended.”
Dr. Burris was conducting important research related to conditions that included type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. That’s what NIH was paying for, not for grant preparation or classroom teaching. NIH and the public it serves have a right to demand strict compliance with the terms of the grant.
As Jeffrey Clark, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice’s Civil Division said, “The NIH has finite resources to support important research across the nation. [The] settlement demonstrates our commitment to protect those resources by ensuring that NIH grants funds are used for the purposes for which they were intended." U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur added, “The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Department of Justice have a duty to protect government resources and ensure they are used appropriately.”
The settlement, covering alleged misconduct from 2008 to 2016, should put other grant recipients on notice. They must put a system in place that properly accounts for time spent on activities that cannot be legitimately charged to an NIH-funded project.