Feds ban ex-Duke lab tech from funding after she faked data linked to 60 NIH grants

The Duke Chapel

Erin Potts-Kant, who lost her job as a researcher at Duke University in 2013 for embezzling more than $25,000 from the institution, has received a rare permanent Federal funding ban from the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI) after investigators concluded that she had used fabricated data in nearly 120 figures. 

The case has been ongoing since 2013. Potts-Kant and a former colleague, William Michael Foster, were named in a 2015 whistleblower lawsuit which alleged that they, with the knowledge of their institution, had used bogus data to collect hundreds of millions of dollars in government grants. Earlier this year, Duke settled the case for $112.5 million, of which nearly $34 million went to the whistleblower, Joseph Thomas.  

According to an ORI finding issued today, investigators determined that Potts-Kant

engaged in research misconduct by knowingly and intentionally falsifying and fabricating research data included in one hundred and seventeen (117) figures and two (2) tables in thirty-nine (39) published papers, three (3) manuscripts, and two (2) research records.

By our count, journals to date have retracted 18 of Pott-Kants papers — less than half of the number the ORI says included faked data. The data were involved in work supported by 60 different NIH grants.

The notice states that: 

Ms. Potts Kant entered into a Voluntary Exclusion Agreement (Agreement) and voluntarily agreed, beginning on October 1, 2019:

1. to exclude herself permanently from any contracting or subcontracting with any agency of the United States Government and from eligibility for or involvement in nonprocurement programs of the United States Government referred to as “covered transactions” pursuant to HHS’ Implementation (2 C.F.R. Part 376) of OMB Guidelines to Agencies on Governmentwide Debarment and Suspension, 2 C.F.R. Part 180 (collectively the “Debarment Regulations”); and

2. to exclude herself permanently from serving in any advisory capacity to PHS including, but not limited to, service on any PHS advisory committee, board, and/or peer review committee, or as a consultant.

No one else in the case has been the subject of any ORI sanctions.

John Thomas, who represented his brother, whistleblower Joe Thomas, in the lawsuit, told Retraction Watch:

The ORI’s findings today underscore the unprecedented scope of this case and the far-reaching impact that one laboratory can have. The findings also illustrate the inherent limits of our nation’s research integrity system. Despite the dozens of research publications and federal grants involved, the only outcome from the ORI process is the exclusion of one research technician. These limits demonstrate the important role that the False Claims Act and its qui tam whistleblower provisions can and must continue to have in remedying scientific fraud. I am proud that this mechanism allowed for a more comprehensive outcome in this case and the repayment of taxpayer funds to the NIH and EPA.

The number of grants involved is the most in any of the ORI’s investigations to date, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, which houses the agency. And permanent bans are rare in ORI cases. There have been just three before: Paul Kornak, Eric Poehlman, and Jon Sudbo, according to the spokesperson.

‘Two crashes’

Duke has been stung by two major scandals, including this one, in recent years (readers of this blog will remember the name Anil Potti). In response, the school is urging its employees to say something if they see something. A recent article in Duke Today quoted Larry Carin, Duke’s new vice president for research administration, saying: 

We’ve come to a conclusion that one of our very serious gaps is people here have too much attention to our own little part of Duke. They sense that if something is not part of my world, it’s not my responsibility. In the two crashes, there were people who should have said something. That would have made a difference. So, what we’re trying to work toward is an ownership culture where we are all responsible for the integrity of the Duke research enterprise. And if we see something amiss, we say something.”

John Thomas added:

Ultimately, I think that Duke University’s Dr. Carin is exactly right with his reference to an “ownership culture” being necessary to combat research misconduct. Institutions must ensure that researchers from all corners of the research enterprise are watching for red flags and reporting when they see them. Institutions must be prepared to take a more active role going forward – and funding agencies should demand it.

This the fourth finding by the ORI this year. In typical years, the agency makes about a dozen per year.

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5 thoughts on “Feds ban ex-Duke lab tech from funding after she faked data linked to 60 NIH grants”

    1. From the opening lines of the ORI report, it sounds as if she admitted to the fraud. Perhaps she took full credit or the case against her colleague was weak.

      “Based on the report of an investigation conducted by Duke University School of Medicine (Duke), an admission from the Respondent, and additional analysis conducted by ORI in its oversight review, ORI found that Erin N. Potts Kant engaged in research misconduct….”

  1. One thing that is not explain and is presented as common knowledge in this article is that this person is not a PhD (referred to as Ms) and likely not the primary investigator on those grants. Ultimately the responsibility lies with the PI So why are they not held accountable? Or were they? And if not, why not? Sounds to me like nothing but a huge cover up and a poor journalistic project—but I could be wrong.

  2. If the Institution knew, who was fired or disciplined from management? I would also expect with such poor controls there are other similar cases that have not become public.

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