A whistleblower lawsuit filed against Duke University by a former research biologist claims that a former colleague’s extensive research fraud helped generate more than $200 million in federal grants. Whistleblower Joseph Thomas, a cell biologist at Duke from 2008 to 2012, alleges that the head of Duke’s pulmonary research lab and other university officials turned a blind eye to the fraud and withheld it when reporting on existing federal grants or applying for new ones.

Mr. Thomas alleges that as a result the bad research helped Duke secure at least 49 research grants worth $82.8 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Environmental Protection Agency, and other agencies. Additionally, Mr. Thomas says the fraudulent research helped other institutions using Duke’s research labs to secure an additional 15 grants totaling nearly $121 million.

The alleged fraud involves former Duke researcher Erin Potts-Kant, who worked in the Airway Physiology Laboratory studying the effects of pollutants on the body’s airways under the direction of William Michael Foster, a leading expert in the study of inflammation of the respiratory system.

Ms. Potts-Kant was arrested for embezzlement in 2013 after stealing more than $25,000 from the Duke University Health System to buy merchandise from Amazon, Walmart, Target and other vendors. Her arrest triggered an investigation of the work she did for Duke over the course of several years, which uncovered extensive fraud that led to the full and partial retraction of scores of published studies.

Mr. Thomas’ complaint alleges that when Ms. Potts-Kant was studying the effects of pollutants on the body’s airways, she manipulated data to produce the outcome she desired. According to the complaint, sometimes Ms. Potts-Kant didn’t expose mice to the proper experimental conditions and on other occasions she failed to run the experiments at all. At other times, she ran the experiments but altered the data, manipulating the numbers and outcomes to fit her hypothesis or embellish their relevance, according to allegations in the complaint.

This case is one of the largest False Claims Act cases to go after a university over alleged research fraud where federal funds are involved. The case could spur other potential whistleblowers in academic institutions to call out research fraud, especially when phony data and experiments are helping colleges rake in federal research grants.

Sources: The News & Observer and the complaint

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