Duke University has agreed to pay $112.5 million to resolve allegations that it submitted fake scientific data to the government to secure research grants.
The alleged misconduct was brought forward in a whistleblower lawsuit filed by former Duke laboratory analyst Joseph Thomas. Under the False Claims Act, for his part in recovering misappropriated taxpayer funds, Thomas will receive a $33.75 million reward.
According to the suit filed by Thomas, a Duke researcher submitted bogus data as part of a series of grant applications, which resulted in lucrative financial aid from the government.
The research projects in question involved studying respiratory functions in mice. The complaint states that Duke researchers submitted false data to federal agencies, thus misrepresenting the results of their work.
The dishonest researcher was eventually fired for embezzling money from Duke University. The whistleblower told the press that, "Duke's administration and researchers faced the reality that seven years of data were false or unreliable."
In a public statement, the President of Duke responded to the accusations stating that, "When individuals fail to uphold [ethical] 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."
In an interesting turn of events, the government decided not to intervene after evaluating the whistleblower’s case. In many cases, that means the end of the investigation. But Thomas decided to move forward on his own, “going against a venerated academic institution with enormous resources," in the words of a spokesperson for the tipster.
For over a year, after blowing the whistle on massive fraud, Thomas saw himself out of a job. According to a representative for the whistleblower, he was "vilified and suffered substantial personal hardships."
Thomas filed the original lawsuit in 2013. While working as a lab research assistant, he allegedly discovered that research coordinator Erin Potts-Kant “engaged in systematic and near-universal research fraud." The complaint also stated that Potts-Kant even made up data instead of “actually performing experiments."
The complaint also went higher up the ladder, accusing Potts-Kant’s supervisors of turning a blind eye and ignoring clear signs of potential fraud.
The lawsuit and its favorable resolution for Thomas had widespread repercussions in the academic community. The ‘fake’ research cited by Potts-Kant was actually included in numerous academic papers authored by him and his colleagues and referenced by hundreds of their peers. Once the misconduct became public, there were 17 scientific paper retractions.
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