By: Tiffani N. White
The majority of scientists have heard horror stories of retaliation in academic whistleblowing scandals and the major payday for whistleblowers in industry. According to The United States Department of Justice, false claim acts (FCA), or qui tam suits, are growing in number in the U.S. legal system. On average, 13.5 new cases are filed on a weekly basis.
In academia, the cost of a “good deed” can be detrimental to a scientist’s mental and physical wellbeing, and many just keep their heads down to finish their academic matriculation. In 2016, a lab researcher reported a scientist at Duke University to administration, which resulted in the scientist’s arrest on embezzlement charges. After her arrest, her publications yielded “unreliable” data and these data were the basis for a lawsuit claiming that the lab received $200 million in federal grant funds fraudulently. To date, this case is one of the largest FCA suits on research misconduct in academia. A current whistleblowing case at Harvard University resulted in a Ph.D. student being detained for a psych evaluation due to reported concerns from the principal investigator (PI) of the lab. After the student’s release, he was able to provide a judge with enough evidence that the PI actions were in retaliation to claims of scientific misconduct by the PI and other scientists in the lab. This resulted in a restraining order preventing the PI from contacting the student directly or indirectly, while allowing the student to work in the lab. The judge also ordered that the PI must maintain a distance of 30.5 meters from the student.
These cases may seem trivial in comparison to the FCA lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies. During the 2016 budget year, the federal government recovered $4.7 billion from drug companies and other industries. According to Drugwatch, $2.5 billion was from the health care industry, including $784.6 million from Wyeth and Pfizer Inc. Being a whistleblower in industry is actually “rewarded” under the FCA guidelines. A whistleblower can get 15 to 30% of the total award settlement if the company pleads or is found guilty of the accused act(s). Also according to The United States Department of Justice, during the 2016 fiscal year, the government paid out $519 million to whistleblowers and from January 2009 to the end of the fiscal year of 2016, whistleblowers were awarded more than $4 billion in payment.
In academia, we are tasked with conducting groundbreaking research with investigational new drugs in hopes of receiving as much federal funding as possible, all while earning higher education degrees. As we join the “workforce” of the pharmaceutical industry, our main responsibility never changes: The goal is to provide patients who suffer from ailments and conditions with safe and effective drugs that increase their quality of life. We all want to make a difference, and that is the main reason for most people who do research of any kind.
This goal of research makes the need for whistleblowers simple, but the outcomes can also have negatives. A “whistleblower” label is a scarlet letter on your academic résumé. The probability of finding a research or teaching position after that labeling will be harder. In pharmaceutical industry, whistleblowers may receive compensation, but some endure hardships as well. These people are subject to being bullied into silence, employment reviews and warnings, and termination. Retaliation is a concern, and many law firms deal with cases of FCA retaliation and try to protect whistleblowers. However, some cases have been decided in favor of the company when the whistleblower is not beyond reproach. Overall, the decision to blow the whistle on colleagues and companies is one that will shape livelihoods for years to come. As health care professionals, we should strive to save the purity of research, present the Food and Drug Administration with safe and effective drug products, and ultimately better the lives of patients.