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Unlike Duke, many top-tier research institutions formed offices of research proactively

Unlike Duke, many of the University’s peer research institutions centralized their research offices years ago as efforts to improve organizational efficiency and stay up to date on modern practices, rather than as reactions to costly scandals.

One of Duke’s major responses in the wake the research fraud settlement this year was the creation of the campus-wide Office of Research, headed by Lawrence Carin, James L. Meriam professor of electrical and computer engineering and former vice provost for research.  A 2015 lawsuit against Duke, in which former lab analyst accused Duke of falsifying data to obtain research grants and concealing the fraud, ended in spring 2019 with a $112.5 million settlement that Duke paid to the federal government.

“This new structure brings Duke in line with the best practices at our peer institutions,”  said Chancellor for Health Affairs A. Eugene Washington in a news release about the new Office of Research. 

Unlike Duke’s, the Johns Hopkins Office of Research Administration has existed for “at least 20 years” and was not formed “in reaction to any sort of scandal,” according to Julie Messersmith, executive director for research at Johns Hopkins University. She added that the office aims to “centralize as much as possible the processes and opportunities for faculty.”

Johns Hopkins has the highest annual research and development expenditures of any U.S. university, spending $2.562 billion in 2017. 

The Office of Research for the University of Southern California, which handles $900 million annually, processes any research “with a contract or grant that requires review,” said Randolph Hall, vice president of research at USC. Hall has been expanding the Office of Research for the last fourteen years, and like Messersmith he said that the creation of the office “was not a response to any particular event.”

The University of Michigan, which spends around $1.5 billion on research annually, making it the second biggest spender, has a similarly centralized Office of Research. According to its website, the Office of the Vice President for Research has “a central responsibility for nurturing excellence in research, scholarship and creative activity across the entire campus.”

The University of Washington and the University of California San Francisco, which take third and fourth place, respectively, for their annual research budgets, both have central research offices. Both offices’ websites point to the maintenance of ethical research practices as high-priority tasks. 

None of the aforementioned universities have had scandals that match the scale of Duke’s recent $112.5 million settlement.

Although most of the highest-spending research universities seem to have had centralized research offices for a number of years, not all of them do. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, “does not have an Office of Research such as has been recently formed at Duke,” wrote Elizabeth D. Peloso, associate vice president/associate vice provost of research services at UPenn.  

Instead, she wrote that the offices supporting research compliance all report into the Office of the Vice Provost for Research. This structure is similar to the way Duke research was organized prior to the creation of the new Office of Research. 

Prior to the creation of the new Office of Research, Duke had a more decentralized research structure. Michael Schoenfield, vice president for public affairs and government relations, wrote in an email that the formerly decentralized structure “served the university well by fostering innovation and collaboration.”  

However, the 2015 lawsuit wasn’t Duke’s first research scandal—former Duke cancer researcher Anil Potti was charged with falsifying clinical data and using those baseless findings to enroll new patients in clinical trials in 2010. This case, along with other research misconduct cases and grant management issues, led the National Institutes of Health to issue new, tightened regulations for Duke researchers in spring 2018. 

In the modern research climate, Schoenfeld wrote, “issues like research oversight, federal regulation, grants management, training and scientific misconduct now require a much higher degree of central leadership to ensure consistency and the application of best practices across the whole institutions” which is the goal of the new Office of Research. 

In a March email, President Price reminded Duke that, despite the widespread financial and moral impacts related to the scandal and settlement, “it does not reflect the vast majority of our students, faculty, staff, and trainees.”

Duke may be late to the game when it comes to establishing a centralized Office of Research, but faculty and administrators have high hopes for its potential to move the university’s research practices and culture in the right direction. 

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