An investigation by the National Institute of Health into the possible misuse of funds at the University of Utah doesn't seem to be lessening the number of research grants the U. is receiving from the federal agency.
The NIH awarded approximately $44 million in grants to U. researchers last fiscal year and more than $2 million this summer, despite an ongoing investigation into a former U. professor's alleged misuse of research funds.One of the summer grants will even be used to renovate the U.'s animal care facility, which was placed on probation for 13 months by the American Association for Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care. The $782,500 NIH grant was awarded after the facility received a three-year accreditation from the association. The U. will provide matching funds for $500,000 of the grant. NIH has designated $282,500 for equipment to renovate the facility.
"We are extremely pleased with this grant because it confirms that the NIH recognizes the quality of research and animal care programs at the University of Utah," said Jack Taylor, director of animal resources.
James Brophy, U. vice president for research, said the NIH grants show the agency's confidence in the U., despite the investigation.
"Funding from the NIH has been going up and we don't anticipate any negative findings (in the investigation). Even if there were negative findings, the pattern of awards would not be seriously affected," he said.
The NIH, which awards $5 billion in grants to research institutions each year, is investigating the research of former U. professor John L. Ninneman, an immunologist.
Ninneman was studying the immune system of burn victims, looking for increased levels of interferon and other chemicals in blood serum that might promote quicker recoveries. While he was at the U., he received two NIH grants totaling $638,598.
The investigation into his research started after an assistant, Thomas Condie, claimed there were discrepancies between the experiment results recorded in the lab and the official manuscript.
Brophy said the U. decided to investigate the situation although "it was acknowledged that there were disagreements between Condie and Ninneman before the investigations were launched," he said.
The first investigation did not find any significant errors, Brophy said. The second investigation found that Ninneman selected certain data to support some of his conclusions.
"Dean (Richard) Lee (the former dean of the medical school that chaired the second committee) decided that the appropriate solution was to ask for a correction," Brophy said. He added that Ninneman made the correction, but the publisher felt it was too minor to change the manuscripts.
Brophy said Ninneman felt uncomfortable at the U. after the investigations and moved to San Diego to teach at the University of California. He left his position in June and could not be reached by the Deseret News.
The U. launched a third investigation after Ninneman left the school. The committee released a confidential report of its investigation in 1987. It was after the report was released that the NIH began its own investigation.
"One reason they're re-opening the investigation is that Congress is concerned about such things, and I think the NIH wants to be doubly sure that their doing what's right in the eyes of congress," Brophy said.
John Butler, a representative from the NIH's external research department, said the NIH is investigating the situation, but declined to comment or speculate about the outcome.
"Speaking from past experiences, if the NIH finds that there has been a misuse of funds, we can and will request that the school pay the funds back," Butler said. "The award is made to the institution, and they are responsible for the proper use of those funds."
The NIH has investigated other institutions for misuse of funds, but none of them have ever lost NIH funding as a result.
Brophy said the NIH investigation is the first in more than eight years.
"(The NIH) is not likely to say we have to refund all of the money. If they do, it will have to come out of U. funds," Brophy said.
"Even if there was a negative aspect of the investigation, it only involves one faculty member out of 400 that receive research grants."