Lawsuits Allege Prominent Universities Misused NIH Research Grants
The amount of NIH grants awarded to medical researchers has doubled since the late 1990s, and a number of prominent universities recently have paid millions of dollars to settle lawsuits in which the federal government alleges that university researchers "pledged to do one thing with their NIH money and then spent it on something else," the Wall Street Journal reports. Since early 2003, the federal government has alleged that researchers at several prominent universities -- such as Northwestern University, Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Alabama-Birmingham and the Weill Medical College of Cornell University -- have used NIH grants for research or other projects not specified in the grants.
In the Cornell case, pediatric endocrinologist Kyriakie Sarafoglou, who the university hired as an assistant professor and "research subject advocate" in 2001, in 2003 filed a lawsuit over alleged misuse of a $23 million NIH grant. The grant was awarded to provide funds for nurses to pediatric patients involved in studies conducted at the Children's Clinical Research Center. In the lawsuit, Sarafoglou alleges that the Cornell grant application created phantom nurses no longer employed at the center, as well as phantom research projects that involved pediatric AIDS and Hodgkin's disease patients, among other charges.
Federal prosecutors later joined the lawsuit, and Weill Medical College in June agreed to pay $4.4 million to settle the allegations but did not admit wrongdoing. According to federal prosecutors, Cornell used some of the NIH grant for studies that involved adult, rather than pediatric, patients and billed Medicaid for patient treatments covered under the grant. Cornell attorneys maintain that the university did not misuse the NIH grant and accurately accounted for research.
According to the Journal, the Cornell case highlights "what some scientists call a dirty little secret of university medical research: the misuse of taxpayers' funds." A recent survey of 3,300 researchers conducted by the University of Minnesota and the HealthPartners Research Foundation found that more than half of "established grant-getting scientists" used the funds for projects other than those specified in the grants -- "often for undisclosed research that might lead to future grants," the Journal reports.
NIH awarded $20 billion in grants to universities last year but "essentially relied on the honor system" to monitor the use of the grants, according to the Journal. NIH can place universities on "exceptional status," under which their use of agency grants is more strictly monitored. However, NIH has placed only one of the 100 largest recipients of agency grants on exceptional status. NIH Deputy Director Norka Ruiz Bravo said, "If people are going to cheat, they are going to cheat," adding that the recent settlements with the universities were "isolated" cases (Wysocki, Wall Street Journal, 8/16).