Duke University will pay $112.5 million to the federal government to settle allegations that researchers submitted applications and reports containing falsified data to win more than two dozen grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency, the Justice Department said on Monday.
“Taxpayers expect and deserve that federal grant dollars will be used efficiently and honestly,” Matthew G.T. Martin, United States attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, said in a statement. “May this serve as a lesson that the use of false or fabricated data in grant applications or reports is completely unacceptable.”
The allegations were initially made in a whistle-blower lawsuit brought by Joseph Thomas, a research analyst who worked in Duke’s pulmonary division. He claimed that another researcher, Erin Potts-Kant, had fabricated data linked to as much as $200 million in federal research grants.
Mr. Thomas filed the lawsuit under the False Claims Act, a federal law that allows individuals to sue on behalf of the government. Under the law, the plaintiff may receive a portion of the damages. Mr. Thomas is to receive more than $33 million from the settlement.
Neither Mr. Thomas nor Ms. Potts-Kant was immediately available for comment.
Although Mr. Thomas’s lawsuit alleged that the fraud occurred between 2006 and 2013, the Justice Department said that the settlement announced Monday resolved allegations covering a longer period, from 2006 to 2018.
University officials said on Monday that they discovered the possible research misconduct in 2013, after Ms. Potts-Kant was fired for embezzling funds. Ms. Potts-Kant eventually pleaded guilty to two counts of forgery and paid restitution, the university said.
In a statement announcing the settlement, Vincent E. Price, president of Duke University, said that the payment would include reimbursement of the grants obtained as a result of the falsified data, as well as additional penalties.
“This is a difficult moment for Duke,” Dr. Price said. “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 university has taken steps in recent years to promote ethics in research, he added, including the creation of an office for scientific integrity, requiring mandatory research integrity training for all medical school faculty, and keeping all research data records.
The university will take several additional measures “to promote values and a culture of excellence and accountability,” Dr. Price said. Among them will be creating an advisory panel on research integrity and excellence, to be led by Ann M. Arvin, a professor of pediatrics and microbiology at Stanford University, that will include and professors from the California Institute of Technology and Rockefeller University.
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