NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


August 22, 2005

Cornell University received a five-year grant of $23 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct studies of children's diseases, but the projects only existed on paper. Instead, the money was being used to treat adults and the center enrolled people as study subjects that didn't have the diseases being examined. The Cornell case exposes a dirty little secret of university medical research: the misuse of taxpayers' funds, says the Wall Street Journal.

Last year, the NIH funneled $20 billion to campus researchers, an amount that has doubled since the late 1990s; now, a string of multimillion-dollar settlements by leading universities is showing how vulnerable the system has become to abuse, says the Journal.

  • Since 2003, Northwestern University, Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham have agreed to civil settlements; in each case the government alleged the universities pledged to do one thing with the money but then spent it on something else.
  • A recent survey of 3,300 research scientists found that more than 50 percent of established grant-getting scientists used grant money designated for one project on another project -- often for undisclosed research that might lead to future grants.
  • Until now, the government has relied on the honor system to police the grants, but the Department of Health and Human Services has implement a pilot program in which its auditors are visiting universities to examine their books.

However, punishment is rare, says the Journal:

  • NIH can put an institution on "exceptional status," with tighter monitoring of grant funds, but hasn't done so in the recent cases.
  • Only 12 institutions are on the penalty list currently, and only one of those is among the 100 biggest recipients of NIH grants.

Source: Bernard Wysocki Jr., "As Universities Get Billions in Grants, Some See Abuses," Wall Street Journal, August 16, 2005.

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