Duke vice president talks how $112.5M data scandal leading to changes at school

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DURHAM, NC (WNCN) – For the first time, Duke’s Dr. Lawrence Carin talks about faked research at the Univeristy and how the school’s reputation will overshadow the scandal.

“Duke has a very large research enterprise and Duke has been engaged in research for decades. So, very fortunately, we have a legacy of excellence in research and we continue to this day to have excellence in research. These incidents that occurred [were] highly unfortunate, we feel very bad about them and we’re trying to correct them.”

The details of the incidents Dr. Lawrence Carin refers to were, until recently, sealed by the courts.

A 58-page federal complaint states that in order to get $112 million in federal grants, former Duke University employee Erin Potts-Kant faked her research.

According to those court records, whistleblower Joseph Thomas said he caught on to what was happening while he was a lab research analyst for Duke Health Systems.

“Anytime you see something like what happened, it is shocking and it is extraordinarily unusual for a place like Duke. And so we’re trying to learn from that. We’re trying to ask ourselves how could this have happened, how could we have caught it earlier what processes can we put in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Carin.

Filling a newly created position as vice president of research, Carin is overseeing more than $1 billion worth of research a year that includes both the University and its health system.

Carin has been a researcher at Duke for 25 years.

According to federal court records, Potts-Kant worked in Duke Health’s pulmonary division.

Her manipulated data was published by 38 publications and tainted 417 scholarly articles.

That false data was used to get millions of dollars in federal grant money.

Duke University eventually discovered Potts-Kant also embezzled some of those funds.

Potts-Kant was eventually charged and pleaded guilty.  

But, the U.S. government said faculty at Duke did not report the fact that they’d also learned her research was fake.

Moving forward, Carin said that can not happen again.  

“If they see anything that looks amiss, looks unusual, even if it’s not directly in their world to bring it forward to make sure that we are pursuing excellence in every aspect of research at Duke,” said Carin.

“Which is exactly what did not happen with other members of the faculty who weren’t necessarily involved in the research itself who didn’t report it,” CBS 17’s Russ Bowen said in response.

Carin replied, “So the absolute details I’m not prepared to get into but I think people believe that there was opportunity to catch this early that people should have recognized.”

Carin says the fix includes a culture shift.

“It’s been said when you evaluate the quality of an organization that if somebody were to call any faculty member at Duke and say ‘please connect me to the quality department’ any faculty member or any student or anybody at Duke would say, ‘We don’t have a separate quality department at Duke. Everybody at Duke is a member of the quality department. And I am answering the phone. I am part of the quality department.’ And so when everybody at Duke feels a sense of ownership that everyone at Duke is responsible for quality then we will have a high performing organization and that is what we’re focused on and that is what we’re working toward,” he said.

As part of the settlement with the government, Duke agreed to pay back $112.5 million.

Duke is known worldwide for its research.

It’s a reputation Carin believes will overshadow what happened.  

“What we can control is to have a research enterprise that operates at the absolute highest level which means we do fabulous science and we do that with integrity and the highest ethics. That’s what we can control and that’s what you know we’re going to work towards. We continue to recruit outstanding faculty. I think in many ways we already had a very fine research enterprise. I think we are working on being even stronger as a result of this” said Carin.

As part of the Whistleblower Protection Act, the settlement also brings a $33.75 million payment to whistleblower Joseph Thomas.

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