New scandal rocks academia’s commanding heights; Duke must pay $112 million for research fraud

The prestige of America’s elite universities is rapidly deflating, as scandals reveal them to be far from disinterested seekers of the truth and shapers of the minds of the meritocratically-selected future leaders. The hard truth is that they are big businesses, as self-interested and narrow-minded as any corporation, but harder to take because of all the pretensions.

The admissions scandals unfolding, with more indictments promised, is but one pillar of elite academic prestige that is getting very shaky. Equally if not more serious is the problem of research fraud, spurred by the availability of gigantic research grants, mostly from the federal government. When phony research is produced, if not caught it can lead to horrendous outcomes, as other researchers use the fake results in their own work. Eventually, bridges could collapse, patients die, or airplanes crash when the “knowledge” is applied in the real world.

That’s why this story from NPR is so important, yet receiving comparatively little attention. Bill Chappell writes:

Duke University is paying the U.S. government $112.5 million to settle accusations that it submitted bogus data to win federal research grants. The settlement will also bring a $33.75 million payment to Joseph Thomas, the whistleblower who drew attention to the fraud when he worked for Duke.

Thomas, a former Duke lab analyst, sued the university on behalf of the federal government, saying that a Duke researcher fudged data to help the university win and keep lucrative grants from two agencies, the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The dozens of grants in question covered the study of the lung function of mice. The Justice Department says Thomas' lawsuit alleged that "between 2006 and 2018, Duke knowingly submitted and caused to be submitted" claims to federal agencies that were unknowingly paying grant money for falsified research data. It adds that while the agreement settles the court case, it does not mean Duke has been determined liable.

Duke says it "discovered the possible research misconduct in 2013 after the [research] technician was fired for embezzling money from the university."

Levine Science Reserach Center at Duke University (photo credit: NPatrick6)

Caught red-handed and forced to disgorge a gigantic fortune, Duke’s president Vincent E. Price is trying to claim the high ground:

Discussing the university's ethical standards in a statement about the case, Duke President Vincent E. Price said virtually all of the school's researchers are dedicated to meeting them.

"When individuals fail to uphold those standards," he added," 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."

But Joseph Thomas, the comparatively low-level lab staffer who discovered the fraud, did not experience this dedication, of which President Price spoke:

Thomas' attorneys, from the law firms Gentry Locke; Healy Hafemann Magee & Thomas; and Brooks Pierce, said that in the fallout from the case, Joseph Thomas was "vilified and suffered substantial personal hardships as he found himself out of work for over a year."

Thomas was working as a lab research analyst for Duke University Health Systems when, his lawsuit alleges, he learned that a researcher in the pulmonary division had violated the False Claims Act, defrauding the government of millions of dollars.

In a lawsuit filed under seal in 2013, Thomas and his attorneys said that as the pulmonary division's former clinical research coordinator, Erin Potts-Kant was supposed to certify the validity of the unit's work and ensure that it fulfilled government requirements. But instead, the suit stated, "Potts-Kant engaged in systematic and near-universal research fraud," including, in some cases, making up data outright "in lieu of actually performing experiments."

The suit also accused those who supervised Potts-Kant of ignoring signs of possible fraud or misconduct.

In addition, the federal government was not at first interested in pursuing Thomas’s complaint, which is why he pursued the lawsuit that is making him a wealthy man:

Thomas' attorneys say he stuck with the case after the government opted not to mount its own investigation after he reported his allegations and filed suit.

"In many meritorious cases, the government decides to 'intervene' at that stage of the proceedings, basically taking over the lead of the case," lawyers for Thomas said. "But here, that never happened. This left Mr. Thomas and his lawyers at the point of the spear – going against a venerated academic institution with enormous resources."

Duke University is widely considered one of America’s best. The US News and World Report ranking has it at #8 among national universities.