Duke to pay $113 million in record research fraud case

University said to have known of problems with lab technician’s faked data for several years

March 26, 2019
Duke University

Duke University has agreed to pay the US government $112.5 million (£85 million) to settle allegations that years of data were falsified to obtain federal grant money, in the nation’s largest legal recovery for research grant fraud.

The complaint alleged that fraud by Erin Potts-Kant, a laboratory technician conducting pulmonary research in the Duke University Health System, netted $200 million in federal grant money between 2006 and 2013.

Duke officials knew of inconsistencies and other warning signs in Ms Potts-Kant’s work but did not stop it, according to a lab colleague who initiated the case against the university.

In addition to paying the $112.5 million settlement, Duke promised to take steps to improve its research quality and integrity, including the creation of an advisory panel to explore the matter.

“This is a difficult moment for Duke,” the North Carolina institution’s president, Vincent Price, wrote to staff and students. “This case demonstrates the devastating impact of research fraud and reinforces the need for all of us to have a focused commitment on promoting research integrity and accountability.”

The lawsuit, in the US District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina in Greensboro, had threatened Duke with paying up to $600 million.

The case was filed by a Duke research analyst, Joseph Thomas, under a federal law, the False Claims Act, that lets a whistleblower bring a suit in conjunction with the federal government and then share in any recovery.

Mr Thomas, who is no longer with Duke, will collect $33.8 million from the settlement, in what his attorneys have called the largest ever recovery under the False Claims Act involving research grant fraud.

Ms Potts-Kant was a laboratory technician in the pulmonary, allergy and critical care department of the Duke University Health System. She earlier pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $25,000 from Duke Health, and a state judge imposed a fine and a sentence of probation and community service.

Mr Thomas started working with Ms Potts-Kant in 2012 when he moved to the pulmonary division. There, he said, other staff told him that Ms Potts-Kant faked elements of nearly every project, often falsifying data or claiming experiments with mice she never ran.

He said that Duke officials – including Ms Potts-Kant's direct supervisors, William Foster, a former research professor of medicine, and Monica Kraft, a former division chief in the pulmonary division – were aware of warning signs, such as unusually quick work and suspicions among non-Duke scientists, but took no action.

University officials said that they discovered the possible research misconduct in 2013 only after learning of the embezzlement.

Professor Foster studied how pollutants affect the body’s airways, and Ms Potts-Kant's work helped her team win $200 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency, the suit alleged.

Ms Potts-Kant also published 38 journal articles that were cited several hundred other articles. At least 17 of her articles have been retracted.

The case was tentatively settled in November but officially announced only on 25 March. In addition to beginning an internal investigation of the case, Duke promised, as part of its post-settlement remedies, to create scientific accountability plans, to establish research conduct training, and to improve clinical research oversight.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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