Duke University just agreed to pay the federal government $112.5 million as part of a settlement after a lawsuit alleged the university used fake research data to secure $200 million in federal research grants.
The settlement naturally means the federal government will not recoup the full costs of the fraudulent grants, but at least Duke — or its insurer — has been hit in the pocketbook.
The lawsuit was filed by Joseph Thomas, a former lab analyst who said Duke used allegedly falsified data from researcher Erin Potts-Kant to secure the grants, and then covered up the fraud. Potts-Kant had allegedly altered data relating to her research in Duke’s pulmonary, allergy, and critical care department, according to the Duke Chronicle. She admitted to changing data in experiments she had run on mice lungs. The Chronicle reported that more than 12 scientific papers authored by Potts-Kant have been retracted since her alleged fraud was discovered.
"This is a difficult moment for Duke," President Vincent Price wrote in a campus-wide email obtained by the Chronicle. "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."
Thomas also included other Duke faculty in the lawsuit. William Foster, now an ex-professor of medicine at the university, and Monica Kraft, the former chief of the pulmonary division, allegedly ignored signs of the fraud, according to Thomas' lawsuit.
Kraft, through her attorneys, denied any wrongdoing claimed in the lawsuit, and said that she brought concerns to university officials and participated fully in internal and external investigations into the misconduct alleged in the lawsuit. Kraft also made it clear that she was not a defendant in the case nor a party to the settlement.
Due to the allegations, the National institutes of Health (NIH) placed strict rules on Duke researchers applying for grants. Any researcher applying for a grant worth less than $250,000 must provide a detailed budget of proposed costs, according to the Chronicle.
“Researchers must also receive prior NIH approval when extending grant budget periods and carrying over unused funds into the next budget period. The new regulations, however, will not affect current research grants,” the Chronicle reported.
The new policies took effect April 1, 2018, and Duke also provided a report to NIH “detailing our current policies and procedures, planned improvements, and assessment of our internal controls,” according to a memo written by Duke administrators.
Duke has a history of problematic frauds, though this is the first time in recent memory that fraud relates to research. We all remember the Duke Lacrosse Rape hoax, in which a stripper claimed three (or five, or more, depending on which version of the story she was telling at the time) members of the Duke Lacrosse team raped her. The case led to three players — including one who wasn’t even at the party at the time of the alleged attack — having their names dragged through the mud. The prosecutor in the case, Mike Nifong, was disbarred for his conduct.
Duke hasn’t fared any better when it comes to rape allegations. In June of last year, the school finally awarded an accused student his degree after withholding it for four years. The student was accused of sexual assault just one semester before he was to graduate. He was expelled three days before his final exams. A judge blocked the school from expelling him, but allowed it to withhold his degree, which it did.
Also last summer, Duke settled with a soccer player who had been accused of sexual assault and suspended. Each case was settled just before trial, likely because the last time a Duke administrator testified under oath, she claimed that men are the ones responsible for obtaining consent, even when both parties are equally drunk.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to include a statement from Dr. Monica Kraft's attorneys, who made it clear she was not part of the fraudulent activities alleged to in the lawsuit.