Duke to pay $112.5M in False Claims Act settlement with DOJ

Duke University is paying a massive monetary fine to settle a whistleblower lawsuit alleging scientific research misconduct.

Information released by the educational institution and federal agencies set the total monetary settlement at $112.5 million.

According to the Department of Justice, a complaint filed under the False Claims Act alleges that Duke knowingly submitted applications and progress reports between 2006 and 2018 that contained falsified research on federal grants to the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Specifically, the United States contends that 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,” stated DOJ in its announcement on Monday.

“Duke knowingly, the government contended, falsified data to claim millions of grant dollars from the National Institutes of Health,” said Maureen R. Dixon, special agent in charge of the Office of Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services. “OIG and our law enforcement partners will continue to hold such grantees fully accountable regardless of the length or complexity of the investigations.”

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At the same time, DOJ’s announcement made it clear that the claims resolved by the settlement are “allegations only” and that “there has been no determination of liability.”

In a written statement, Duke emphasized that no human subjects were involved in the research while noting that the settlement will include reimbursement of grants obtained as a result of the falsified and fabricated data, as well as related penalties.

Joseph Thomas, the former Duke research technician who filed a whistleblower lawsuit—Thomas v. Duke—under the False Claims Act, will receive $33.75 million of the $112.5 million DOJ settlement. Duke contends that it discovered the “possible research misconduct in 2013” after a researcher was fired for embezzling money from the university.

“This case demonstrates the devastating impact of research fraud and reinforces the need for all of us to have a focused commitment on promoting research integrity and accountability,” said Duke in its statement. “Over the past several years, we have taken important steps informed by this case to support and promote an environment and culture of scientific integrity.”

According to Duke, these steps include the implementation of a new data management tool that provides a documented, permanent archive for research data.

“We expect everyone at Duke to adhere to the highest standards of ethical behavior,” the university’s statement concluded. “This includes the responsibility to act with integrity and to report conduct that does not meet these standards. In this case and others, we have seen first-hand that the actions of those who do not can harm the entire institution.”

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