Duke to pay $112.5M to settle allegation of falsifying research

Duke University will pay the US government $112.5 million to settle allegations of falsifying research in order to obtain millions of dollars in federal grants, the Department of Justice announced Monday.

Duke is accused of “submitting applications and progress reports that contained falsified research on federal grants to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),” violating the False Claims Act, according to a Justice Department news release.

The settlement revolves around allegations that between 2006 and 2018 Duke “knowingly submitted and caused to be submitted claims to the NIH and to the EPA that contained falsified or fabricated data or statements in 30 grants,” according to the department.

“This settlement sends a strong message that fraud and dishonesty will not be tolerated in the research funding process,” EPA Acting Region 4 Administrator Mary S. Walker said in a statement.

A former Duke employee, Joseph Thomas, originally brought the allegations in a lawsuit under the whistleblower provision of the False Claims Act, according to the Justice Department, and will receive $33,750,000 from the settlement.

The university receives millions of dollars every year in funding for grants from the EPA and NIH, according to the Justice Department.

“The results of certain research related to mice conducted by a Duke research technician in its Airway Physiology Laboratory, as well as statements based on those research results, were falsified and/or fabricated,” according to the department.

“We expect Duke researchers to adhere always to the highest standards of integrity, and virtually all of them do that with great dedication,” Duke President Vincent E. Price was quoted as saying in a news release by the university. “When individuals fail to uphold those standards, 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.”

According to the release, “Duke discovered the possible research misconduct in 2013 after the technician was fired for embezzling money from the university, which also occurred over the same period.”

It notes the university “then launched a formal scientific misconduct investigation of the technician’s experiments. Those experiments involved measuring the lung function of laboratory mice using highly specialized equipment and were not connected to human subject or clinical research.”

The Justice Department release notes, “The claims settled by this agreement are allegations only, and there has been no determination of liability.”