University of Pittsburgh Professor Pays $132,000 and Agrees to Exclusion to Resolve Allegations of False Claims for Federal Research Grants
PITTSBURGH, PA – Christian Schunn, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Pittsburgh since 2001, has agreed to pay the United States $132,027 to resolve allegations that he violated the False Claims Act by submitting false documents to the National Science Foundation (NSF) in order to obtain federal grants to fund his research, United States Attorney Scott W. Brady announced today.
Under the terms of the settlement, Schunn will also be excluded from applying for or participating in any federal grants, through October 15, 2019. Schunn will also withdraw from any pending applications for federal funding, provide certifications and assurances of truthfulness to NSF for up to five years, and agree not to serve as a reviewer, advisor, or consultant to NSF for a period of three years.
Since 1998, Schunn has served as Principal Investigator on more than 24 awards from NSF, valued at over $50 million. Schunn’s research in the areas of education and psychology frequently involves human subjects. When research involves human subjects, NSF requires institutional review board (IRB) approvals to be obtained in order to ensure that the rights and welfare of human subjects are protected.
The settlement resolves allegations that from 2006 through 2016, Schunn created false IRB approvals and submitted them to NSF in connection with multiple proposals for NSF funding totaling more than $2.3 million. Following Schunn’s submission of each false IRB approval, NSF awarded funding to the University of Pittsburgh with Schunn as Principal Investigator, and award funds were drawn down. Schunn then allegedly made, or caused others to make, false claims for payment by certifying that the drawdowns were being made in accordance with the terms and conditions of the awards, when in fact, no proper IRB approval had been in place. The United States contends that Schunn also made false certifications in connection with annual and project reports associated with these awards.
"Federal awards for research are highly competitive and a privilege to receive, and it is imperative that applicants for federal award funding follow the rules, particularly those ensuring the welfare of human research subjects," said United States Attorney Scott W. Brady. "This case demonstrates our office’s commitment to protecting federal grant money and ensuring that applicants for funding are truthful and responsible stewards of taxpayer funds."
"Federally-funded research involving human subjects requires IRB approval to ensure that the research is conducted safely, appropriately, and consensually," said National Science Foundation Inspector General Allison Lerner. "Circumventing the IRB process by submitting false IRB approvals, as Dr. Schunn did, not only has the potential to place human subjects at risk, but is also an affront to the integrity one expects from a scientific researcher. I commend the U.S. Attorney’s Office for its work on this case."
This matter was investigated by the Office of Inspector General of the National Science Foundation. Assistant United States Attorney Christy C. Wiegand handled the investigation that led to this settlement on behalf of the United States.
The claims resolved by the settlement are allegations only, and there has been no determination of liability.