Duke is being sued by a former researcher for using improper data in grant applications to receive about $200 million in funding.
This development stems from a series of retractions in papers published by Erin Potts-Kant, a former Duke researcher who was arrested for embezzling from the University in 2013, and William Foster, also a former Duke researcher. Fifteen of Potts-Kant’s papers have been retracted, according to Retraction Watch, a blog that covers scientific misconduct and retractions and first reported the lawsuit.
The lawsuit was filed under the False Claims Act, which allows “whistleblowers” unconnected with the government to file suit on behalf of the government to recover federal funds provided due to fraudulent information. In this case, the lawsuit alleges, the money came in the form of 60 grants worth about $200 million.
Retraction Watch reported that, should Duke lose the lawsuit, the University could be required to return to the government up to three times the fraudulent funds, as well as a payout to the whistleblower—Joseph Thomas, a former member of the cell biology department.
According to Retraction Watch, Thomas is alleging that several reviewers and hospital staff were aware or suspicious that Potts-Kant had fabricated research. He goes on to allege, the article said, that others at Duke were aware of the research’s red flags.
Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, wrote in a statement that Duke maintains high levels of scientific integrity in its research and has cooperated with the government on the grants in question.
"Duke is committed to maintaining the highest standards of integrity in research. After Duke learned that a former employee, Erin Potts-Kant, had been embezzling funds from the University (for which she later was prosecuted and convicted), we also discovered discrepancies in some data that she had been generating in research projects," he wrote. "Even though the full scope of Ms. Potts-Kant’s actions were not known at the time, Duke notified several government agencies in June 2013 about the matter and immediately launched a formal scientific misconduct investigation, as required by federal law. Since then, Duke has provided extensive information to the government regarding the grants in question, and we will continue to cooperate with their investigation. As with all pending litigation, we will decline further comment on the case.”
The lawsuit follows other incidents of research misconduct at the University, including a scandal involving now-discredited cancer researcher Anil Potti who falsified research that made it seem like he could use models to customize a patient's cancer treatment
In May 2015, the University settled a lawsuit involving the families of eight patients who were treated in clinical trials based on Potti's work.
The most recent lawsuit can be viewed below: