A former whistle-blower says University of Utah officials are too concerned about protecting their reputation to detect and punish research fraud.
"As it stands now, there's nothing out there to prevent fraud," said J. Thomas Condie. "Universities are big business, and they're protecting their image."Condie, joined by the U.S. Attorney's Office, filed a $4 million suit in San Francisco district court, alleging misuse of nearly $1.3 million in federal grant money from the National Institutes of Health.
The suit says that Condie's former boss, researcher John L. Ninnemann, defrauded the government by falsifying data while at the University of Utah. Ninne-mann is named in the suit, as well as the U. and the University of California San Diego, where he continued his research into the immune systems of burn patients.
Ninnemann was a research professor at the U. from 1980-84, and at UCSD from 1984-88. Con-die managed Ninnemann's Utah lab and is now the state Department of Health's HIV manager.
This case is pegged as a legal landmark, because Condie's suit marks the first time the Department of Justice has tried to make a university as well as a researcher responsible for misuse of grant money under the federal False Claims Act.
If the legal claim is successful, it could have a chilling effect on university level research across the country, said John K. Morris, U. associate vice president for academic affairs.
Morris said universities need to protect a creative environment. "We can't be the police people. It's not our role to be out there microscoping everybody's work.
"We don't condone fraud or sloppy research. But that kind of oversight would stifle the kinds of free-ranging, crazy research that we want people to do," Morris said. "We have to protect the rights of faculty members to be wrong and to try unorthodox things."
The U. conducted three investigations after Condie, a former U. laboratory manager, reported to administrators in 1983 that Ninnemann was falsifying research data. Although several reports concluded some of Ninnemann's research may have been sloppy, and a letter of reprimand was placed in his personnel file, no official action was warranted based on the investigations, said James Brophy, U. vice president for research.
By the time the investigations were completed, Ninnemann had left the university. The U. followed its administrative procedures in investigating the alleged grant improprieties, Brophy said. The U. has as many as 1,200 research grants awards at any one time, and doesn't have the personnel to look over the shoulder of every researcher.
But Condie says the U.'s first investigation was superficial, while others that found evidence of research fraud were ignored. "It's the university administration that's at fault here. They have policies and procedures in place, but they don't enforce them. They hide things."
Condie said he became suspicious about his boss in spring 1983, when Ninneman started making false statements about the pair's research. The data contained in one article Ninnemann published in the Journal of Trauma looked too good to be true, Condie said.
When he looked back at laboratory records, the raw data didn't confirm the published data, Condie says. "It was shocking to me."
Condie said he confronted Ninne-mann, who couldn't explain the irregularities, but told him to find another job. Condie reported it to U. officials, who kept him on the payroll for a time but weren't able to find him another job at the same salary.
At first, the research project was exciting, because Condie and Ninne-mann thought they had made a breakthrough and had identified a peptide carrier, a small protein produced naturally in the body that would protect burn victims from infection.
Condie feels the falsified research betrayed the victims who donated blood for the study. "That was one of the things that made me so upset about this. These people, they have a trust with you. To misuse the blood they give you to falsify information . . . did nothing but put some people on a wild goose chase, waste money and more time."
Condie said despite having to change professions, he doesn't regret reporting the discrepancies. "I want to change the system because it has failed and is continually failing. The only effective way to prevent fraud is for someone within (to report it)."
But he admits he won't mind receiving a financial windfall, if the legal battle is decided in his favor.
"As it stands now, whistleblowers get persecuted, not protected," Con-die said.