A Boston hospital affiliated with Harvard Medical School will pay $10 million in fines to resolve allegations that researchers fraudulently obtained federal funding for medical research, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced Thursday.
Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), a teaching hospital affiliated with Harvard, settled with the DOJ and admitted researchers employed by it knew or should have known that their research was dependent on manipulated and falsified information. The researchers then applied to the National Institute of Health (NIH) for a grant concerning their purported findings about the ability of stem cells to repair damage in the heart.
DOJ said the researchers used fabricated data to claim they could heal human hearts with stem cells in an application for federal funding. NIH gave the BWH researchers a grant based on falsified data. Afterwards, the researchers allegedly covered the fabrication up by keeping records the DOJ described as “deliberately misleading.”
The case began in 2014 when a scientific journal retracted a paper by three BWH stem cell researchers, prompting an investigation into allegations of misconduct. The paper had been published in 2012 and received an NIH grant at the time. The hospital confirmed that the paper’s data had been corrupted in 2014.
BWH itself brought the misconduct to the DOJ’s attention and none of the three researchers are still employed there.
“Individuals and institutions that receive research funding from NIH have an obligation to conduct their research honestly and not to alter results to conform with unproven hypotheses,” William D. Weinreb, acting U.S. attorney, said in a press statement. “Medical research fraud not only wastes scarce government resources but also undermines the scientific process and the search for better treatments for serious diseases.
Academics are under serious financial pressure to rapidly and continually publish research to sustain or further their careers, even if the research is essentially useless or misleading. This creates an enormous financial incentive to engage in dubious laboratory research, which causes results to become distorted.
A study found that 34 percent of researchers self-report that they have engaged in “questionable research practices,” including “dropping data points on a gut feeling” and “changing the design, methodology, and results of a study in response to pressures from a funding source,” whereas 72 percent of those surveyed knew of colleagues who had done so. The National Science Foundation estimates that research misconduct creates over $110 million in annual costs.
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