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An Expensive Choice for Duke

You may have seen the headlines about a large settlement ($112.5 million) that Duke University is paying the government. This goes back to Erin Potts-Kant, a clinical research coordinator at Duke Health, as well as (former) professor William Foster and (former) chief of the Pulmonary Division Monica Kraft. The details are many, and some of them are in filings that are under seal, but the broad outline is that Potts-Kant falsified data on rodent lung studies for both grant applications/renewals (60 of them!) and publications (17 of them retracted so far). The settlement document says that “nearly all” of her experiments were faked – but, she said, only if the data didn’t look like she wanted it to, from which we can conclude that it mostly didn’t.

She knew what results people wanted, and worked diligently to fake those up for them. She testified that she didn’t feel personal pressure to produce good results, because (as she put it) “she could always find a job somewhere else”, but rather noted the pressure that the researchers were under to produce, and decided to help them out. Potts-Kant worked at the university for 8 years, was promoted during that time, and presented this work at conferences. Eight years of faked-up happy-talk results: there’s a psychological element here. Not only is a person less likely to question “good” results, but over time, suspicions about them become harder to entertain. Surely this stuff hasn’t been faked for that long? For years? From the beginning? Well, in this case it was, and the longer something like this goes on, the harder the reckoning at the end.

You can follow the way all this developed by going backwards through the archives at Retraction Watch, and it’s quite a tale. For example, along the way, Potts-Kant herself was charged with embezzling money from the university. Foster, the scientific PI over her, complained to the university about this – not the embezzlement, you understand, about the accusation – and pointed out how crucial her work was to grant renewals, progress reports, publications, etc. This turned out not to be a good thing to have on the record.

The whistleblower involved, Joseph Thomas, also held that Foster and Kraft (and the university administration in general) ignored credible accusations of misconduct. Actually, he went further, saying the the university knowingly submitted (and caused to be submitted) falsified data in support of all those grant applications. The settlement, as I understand it, does not lay that question to rest, but the fact that Duke was willing to pay up to this degree perhaps speaks to that point. Since this was a lawsuit filed under the False Claims Act, Thomas is entitled to a share of the settlement, and will be receiving $33.8 million. These are the sorts of stories that (one would think) should make institutions think long and hard about the implications of trying to stonewall behavior like this. Duke tried to get this lawsuit thrown out at one point, to no avail, and now instead of making Thomas go away they get to make him rich instead.

Postscript: Interestingly, if you go back through those Retraction Watch archives, you’ll start to blend into a series of stories about yet another Duke research fraud, which I wrote about myself here. It is fair to say that Duke has not been enhancing its reputation for medical research these last few years, and as an alumus of its Chemistry department, all I’ll say personally is that I’m glad I left in 1988.

 

28 comments on “An Expensive Choice for Duke”

  1. Bert fraser-reid says:

    Duke has long been an institution of integrity

    1. johnnyboy says:

      If you say so, it must be true – like all those experiments I guess

      1. Anonymous says:

        I’m trying to cut through some of the inside jokes here. The first reply was from (fake) “Bert fraser-reid” who was at Duke but had a problem or two while there. Hence, a recognizably sarcastic comment about ethics at Duke. (I don’t think the problems were chemistry related; I thought they were of a more personal nature.)

        The reply to “Bert fraser-reid” from “johnnyboy” was a sarcastic ‘must be true – like all those expts’. Is that a reference to the current Duke / Potts-Kant experiments or is it about experiments in the Duke / F-R labs from long ago? I don’t remember any big problems about F-R chemistry claims (other than the usual “I can’t get this F-R chemistry to work! Must have been a contaminated stir bar.”).

    2. David Young MD says:

      So is Harvard…. but then, they had John Darsee

      1. Anonymous says:

        David Young MD: Not just Harvard!
        – William Summerlin at Sloan-Kettering (The Patchwork Mouse)
        – Soman and Felig at Yale (A Fraud that Shook the World of Science)
        (www.nytimes.com/ 1981/11/01/magazine/ a-fraud-that-shook-the-world-of-science.html )
        – van Parijs at MIT
        – Poehlman at U Vermont
        – ad infinitum

  2. Isidore says:

    I have not been following the story too closely, so there may be an explanation for this, which puzzles me: How can a “clinical research coordinator” fake all these data, I mean didn’t the people who actually generated the data, you know, the scientists, notice that something was amiss? Even if they did not see the grant applications, didn’t they bother to read the (now retracted) publications with their data? The only one that did, apparently, was “lab analyst” Thomas, the whistleblower. Surely there were others, in addition to professor Foster and the Head of the Pulmonary Division, who generated, processed, analyzed or discussed the data. It really does take a village…

    1. Ed says:

      I think “clinical research coordinator”* isn’t the precisely correct title for Potts-Kant. Other articles have referred to her as a “scientist” or “technician”, and have made it sound like she was doing a lot of real hands-on work, and generating real raw data. She then fabricated results by altering the data to make it “better”, to fit the PI’s hypothesis or whatever.

      * For the peanut gallery: a “clinical research coordinator” is typically the person that talks to human subjects in clinical trials or other experiments. They rarely, if ever, are involved in science at the bench or in the animal facilities.

  3. RET says:

    Keep in mind that when faculty researchers submit a grant application, they submit it to their research, who then, submits the application for the University. They research office does not evaluate the content of the science, only that compliance issues are addressed and proper budgetary guidelines are followed. Presumably, here Duke was aware and potentially investigating a researcher for misconduct, when some of these applications (renewals, reports, etc) were being submitted. They should have told someone within the granting agency that there was an active investigation despite concerns about privacy.

  4. Hap says:

    It doesn’t seem like it would be a good place to go to grad school. You already know that if it’s a choice between research cash and integrity, cash wins, and grad students are grist for that particular mill. Normally, though, the administration has some sort of pretense of research integrity, but I guess they’ve seen the news and asked themselves, “Why bother?”. It doesn’t seem like a student has a prayer if they’re caught in dishonest research.

    On the other hand, if they can get in contact with Bengu Sezen, she might be interested in a faculty position at Duke. We already know she can get results.

    1. annoyed NMH says:

      Not needed for Bengu; she has a good faculty position in Turkey:
      http://www.gtu.edu.tr/en/personel/356/5411256/display.aspx

      As for Duke, just a coincidence that there are more fraud cases then average. Probably the same number in any institution, because, in all of these places, the most poorly-paid people are the ones who generate the data. The good news is that at least the tech walks out of this a multi-millionaire, instead of some 90 yr old tenured faculty member who never retires.

      1. Hap says:

        I dunno…I think they’re beyond the “enemy action” stage of research fraud at this point. As has been put with lots of other criminal acts, “coincidence is bollocks”.

    2. Old Timer says:

      Wow, that didn’t take long… A Bengu Sezen reference! My least favorite TA.

  5. Chrispy says:

    Even more worrisome than someone like this, who commits blatant fraud and is willing to cop to it, are those labs who keep a lab narrative going that is fundamentally fiction but never quite rises to the level of fraud. While I was in graduate school I ran a series of assays for an ambitious postdoc to ascertain the apoptosis of cells under certain conditions. It was probably six different assays, but only one agreed with the hypothesis. That one, of course, got published — the others “didn’t work.” This kind of thing is very common — science is increasingly aimed at supporting a narrative, not finding any kind of objective truth. It’s disheartening.

    1. Adonis says:

      At first, I thought nobody cared about the truth. Now, I am starting to think that truth and common sense are outlawed in academia.

      1. annon says:

        Its only outlawed if its an unpublishable negative result.

  6. Nick K says:

    Why are there no criminal prosecutions for the principals in this fraud?

    1. KazooChemist says:

      Occasionally there are. See the Poehlman case mentioned above.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Poehlman

        1. loupgarous says:

          Wups, jumped the gun, there. Thereza Imanishi-Kari and David Baltimore were exonerated by NIH of research fraud; the relevant errors were determined to be ones Baltimore and Imanishi-Kari had acknowledged. Apologies to everyone.

  7. Lane Simonian says:

    Well-done Joseph Thomas. It takes courage, persistence, and the ability to absorb a great deal of mental pressure and anguish in the face of huge odds to be a whistleblower.

    In a way it was fortunate that this False Claims case was brought against a private university. Public universities try to use the doctrine of sovereign immunity to shield themselves against False claim cases.

    The last month or so has exposed the tip of the iceberg in terms of fraud and corruption in higher education. Some universities and colleges, for instance, have gotten away with reporting paying their employees millions of dollars more than they were actually paying them.

    The problem is that there is little oversight of higher education. Board of Regents or Board of Trustees act as rubber stamps and administrators rarely face independent and thorough outside audits. Lip service is given to honor, and integrity by exorbitantly paid higher ed officials but they rarely embody these values themselves. Get away with whatever you can for as long as you can is their main driving principle.

    1. Hap says:

      I guess the question is “where is the oversight worse?”. Boards of Directors don’t seem to have much sympathy with investors (unless you’re one of they’re friends or an “activist investor”). In theory, you can yank the board, but I don’t think it’s happened very often. With state schools, the governor might be able to yank the administration, although considering how much money they chip in (not much), it’s not easy. Administrations/bureaucracies form for their own interests, and when a job gets big enough, you have to have some of them.

      The problem is that the standards of behavior that support a civil society are only endorsed for and enforced on those without the power to do anything different. Even though that is unlikely to end well, the people doing otherwise figure the train won’t crash until they’re off of it, and everyone else can go fish.

    2. Emjeff says:

      A lot of Regents on the U of Maryland’s Board just resigned – turned out that they were benefitting from University contracts. One of them was the Mayor of Baltimore City. The rot runs quite deep in academia. I’m not saying the industry is perfect (far from it), but it’s time the Academy cleaned up its act.

    3. fajensen says:

      I think the root problem is that academia and education, like business, has become financialised.

      Similar incentives structures and alignment of values is what drives patterns of “Relax, it’s only fraudulent if they can prove intent!” and straight-up border-line criminal behaviours, those will be quite similar to what we already see happening in business.

      Regulation and good Enforcement would of course work, but, it has to be across the board because “Business Strategic Thinking” like the capturing and neutering of regulators and law-makers for privatised profit and the sponsoring of research that just happens to support whatever agenda the sponsors like, all those course will continue to spill over to the political thinking about regulating academia.

      I.O.W’s I think we need to reboot society somehow.

  8. Glen L Weaver says:

    Perhaps Duke needs to hire Elizabeth Holmes as a Science Director and fund raiser.

    1. Hap says:

      Is Waksal still around? Department chair, baby!

  9. ab says:

    Who was it that said a while back pharma companies shouldn’t be allowed to publish their science because they’re so strongly motivated to publish false data none of it can be trusted?

    1. loupgarous says:

      Obviously, commercial incentives aren’t necessary for fraud to occur. The flow of money from NIH and other noncommercial sponsors is more than enough, and fraud isn’t as zealously protected against in academia as it is in Big Pharma, where data integrity is enforced at every level. When people in pharmaceutical firms are involved in misreporting research findings, generally the people involved are higher in the food chain than researchers.

  10. MagickChicken says:

    Highly unlikely, but it would be awesome if Thomas set up his own little grant foundation specifically for Duke people to apply to, since they’ll all undoubtedly be greatly impacted by that $113M hit. Bonus points if he has an invisible ranking for those that supported him vs. those that did not.

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