Washington, D.C. May 8, 2012. In a resounding reversal, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit yesterday ordered that a whistleblower claim alleging research fraud by Harvard Teaching Hospial will proceed to trial. The case involves one of the largest Alzheimer’s disease research grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Dr. Kenneth Jones, the chief statistician for the NIH grant, blew the whistle after realizing that measurements used to demonstrate the reliability of the study had been secretly altered. Without these alterations, Dr. Jones explained, there was no statistical significance to the major findings of the study. After Dr. Jones insisted that the altered measurements be subjected to a reliability study and that the results could not be presented as part of a $15 million federal grant extension application, he was terminated and his career came to an end.
The First Circuit overturned a lower court decision finding that the court had failed to consider substantial evidence of fraud. This evidence established that Harvard knew of the falsifications and failed to take action to correct or disavow the data.
The First Circuit decision also found that the lower court failed to consider relevant testimony from expert witnesses. Dr. Jones presented testimony from three experts: a statistician who confirmed that the alterations were responsible for the statistical significance of the study results, a medical researcher who identified that the altered results could not be justified and were changed to establish a predetermined outcome, and a third expert who confirmed that NIH would not have funded the study had the falsity of the data been revealed during the application process and that Harvard failed to adequately investigate allegations of research fraud.
“This is a major breakthrough holding universities accountable for the integrity of reported research results,” explained Michael D. Kohn, one of the lead attorneys for Dr. Jones. “Fraud committed in order to obtain NIH funding not only robs taxpayers, but also sets back long-term medical research goals. The facts of this case indicate that the report of false data misdirected research efforts at other institutions.”
Kohn, who also serves as President of the National Whistleblowers Center, continued:
This is a potent example of how employees who risk their careers to do the right thing can hold even the most powerful and prestigious institutions accountable. Bullying and blacklisting scientists by the likes of Harvard to cover-up research fraud represents a terrible disservice to society as a whole.