A former Duke University research biologist has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the university, alleging fraudulent research and doctored data help Duke and affiliated institutions pull in more than $200 million in federal grants.
A False Claims Act lawsuit filed by Joseph Thomas was unsealed last week in a federal court. Mr. Thomas began working in Duke’s cell biology department in 2008. In 2012, he moved to the university’s pulmonary division, where he alleges fellow researcher Erin Potts-Kant used fraudulent data in nearly every experiment in which she participated, then including the bad data in published research, prompting scores of papers to be either fully or partially retracted.
Mr. Thomas’ complaint alleges that when Ms. Potts-Kant was studying the effects of pollutants on the body’s airways, she manipulated data to produce the outcome she desired.
“Sometimes, the suit alleges, she hadn’t exposed mice to the right experimental conditions or run the experiments at all,” Science magazine reports. “Other times … Potts-Kant had run the experiments but altered the data, tweaking them to match the hypothesis or boost their statistical significance.”
Mr. Thomas also alleges that Ms. Potts-Kant’s supervisor, William Michael Foster, and the university reviewed all the research in which Ms. Potts-Kant was involved, but withheld its findings from federal agencies when applying for new grants or reporting on existing ones.
As a result, the whistleblower complaint alleges, Duke has received at least 49 grants worth $82.8 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and other agencies “that were directly premised on and/or arose from the research misconduct and fraud of Potts-Kant and/or the Foster lab.”
The lawsuit further alleges that the bad research helped other institutions using Duke’s research labs to secure an additional 15 grants totaling nearly $121 million.
Ms. Potts-Kant was placed on leave in 2013 and subsequently arrested for embezzlement. She later pled guilty to stealing more than $25,000 from the Duke University Health System to buy merchandise from Amazon, Walmart, Target, and other stores.
According to Science magazine, attorneys familiar with the case said that it is one of the largest False Claims Act suits to go after a university over alleged research fraud. As such, the lawsuit “should scare all [academic] research institutions around the country” that may be taking federal money based on fraudulent research, lawyers told Science magazine.
The lawsuit could also “open the floodgates” to other False Claims Act cases, which at this point mostly take aim at health care and military / government contractor fraud, lawyers told Science magazine, noting that the case against Duke indicates the False Claims Act “is increasingly being used to target alleged fraud in a diverse array of industries, including research and academia.”