Falsified Data Forces Duke to Pay $112 Million Settlement, Other Universities Under Scrutiny as Well

Duke University building

Duke University has agreed to pay the U.S. government more than $112 million to settle allegations that a university-associated researcher falsified claims in order to obtain funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other federal agencies.

In an announcement Monday, the private university in Durham, N.C., said the research issues were first discovered in 2013 after the technician in question was terminated following embezzlement allegations. The researcher, according to the university, falsified and fabricated data over a number of years, from 2006 to 2013. The embezzlement allegations against the former employee, Erin Potts-Kant, occurred over the same time frame as the falsification of data for federal grants, Duke said in its announcement.

The case against Duke was filed in federal court in 2014 after the research technician was discovered to have embezzled federal grant funds that had been awarded to the university, but before Duke understood the extent of her research misconduct, Duke said. The university reported the fraud to the agencies and repaid the funds. The technician eventually pled guilty to two counts of forgery and paid restitution to Duke.

During Potts-Kant’s time with the university, there were concerns raised about some of the research being conducted, but her supervisors allegedly ignored them, the Associated Press noted. The school did not act on those research concerns until it had discovered Potts-Kant’s involvement with the embezzlement, according to the report.

After paying restitution to the government, Duke University then launched an investigation into the research technician’s experiments. The experiments involved measuring the lung function of laboratory mice but was not connected to clinical research, the school said. According to the findings, Potts-Kant “falsified or fabricated data that had been included in grant and payment requests submitted to the NIH and other agencies over the period of her employment.” Potts-Kant was a researcher in the pulmonary, allergy and critical care department of Duke Health, the Duke Chronicle reported. The university retracted about a dozen scientific publications that relied on the data from that technician’s research.

The lawsuit was first filed in 2015 by former Duke employee Joseph Thomas, who will receive about $33 million from the government settlement.

In response to the settlement, Duke said it will implement a series of steps to improve the quality and integrity of research conducted on campus. Some of those steps include the establishment of a new, leadership structure for research that will “provide clear and consistent policy guidance, oversight and accountability for all research at Duke University and Duke Health.”

“We expect Duke researchers to adhere always to the highest standards of integrity, and virtually all of them do that with great dedication,” Duke University President Vincent E. Price said in a statement. “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.”

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The issue at Duke certainly isn’t the first time that a university has been involved in research scandals or have failed to meet transparency guidelines. STAT News reported this week that many universities are under fire for failing to report clinical trial results. The results of about one-third of clinical trials conducted by prestigious universities have not been reported per federal requirements.

Also, Tufts University is having to conduct an investigation into its long-time relationship with Purdue Pharma and the Sackler Family. The university has benefited financially from that relationship and that has since been called into question due to the lawsuits against Purdue, the maker of OxyContin. One of the lawsuits against the pharma company points to its relationship with Tufts, which prompted the university to investigate, Tufts Daily reported.

Last year, Harvard University was forced to retract numerous articles from a former researcher. The move was made by Harvard following an internal investigation that led to Harvard and Brigham and Women’s Hospital agreeing to pay a $10 million settlement over allegations of research misconduct involving Dr. Piero Anversa and members of his team.

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