By Anmolpreet Kandola, news correspondent
Northeastern University has agreed to pay the federal government $2.7 million for failing to properly allocate and document research funds received from a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant between 2001 and 2010.
The university received the grant to support former physics professor Stephen Reucroft’s high-energy particle physics research at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland.
According to the settlement agreement, Northeastern failed to comply with the conditions of the award, disbursing NSF grant funding without documenting that it was for authorized purposes. Unauthorized advances were made to CERN accounts for salaries and travel expenses.
“A recipient of NSF award funds must have documentation of salary payments, purchases of equipment, travel, expenses and all other items charged to the awards,”the university said in a statement sent to The News on Sept. 14.
The settlement agreement provided by the District of Massachusetts’ US Attorney’s Office explains that grant regulations require recipients to “have documentation for all claimed expenditures from each of the Awards to ensure both that all expenditures were related to a particular Award and that the expenditures were reasonable.”
Universities that are recipients of NSF grants must make sure that funds are used only for their intended purpose.
Accounts controlled by Reucroft made up to 48 unauthorized advances using NSF grant funding. Additionally, Reucroft submitted fraudulent claims for personal expenses, depositing money without requisite verification.
“Northeastern also failed, for more than two years, to notify NSF when it discovered significant problems with the accounting for award funds paid and knew that at least some of the funds were used to pay Professor Reucroft’s personal expenses,” the US Attorney’s Office said in a statement.
The foundation claims that lack of much-needed oversight made it impossible to know whether expenditures were justified.
Jim Akula, a professor in the psychology department, weighed in on why the dispute resulted in a heavy fine.
“What it sounds like is that the PI (principal investigator) was spending government money where he shouldn’t have been,” he said in an email to The News. “It is not hard to get away with this kind of stuff for a while. The university eventually caught him and took some countermeasures, but didn’t report it in a timely manner to the NSF. That makes it smell like a cover-up, and that’s why huge fines were levied.”
The District Attorney claimed that the university, as a recipient of government funds, had both a financial responsibility and public trust responsibility.
“In this case, Northeastern failed to protect the government’s interest and lacked adequate control over a researcher’s ability to spend millions of taxpayer dollars,” Allison Lerner, inspector general of the NSF, said in the statement from the District Attorney.
In response, the university claimed that it has made improvements to its financial management system.
“The university has made significant enhancements to its personnel, procedural and financial controls to support its robust research enterprise,” the statement said. “The university takes compliance seriously in all aspects of its operations and is proud of its successful and ongoing partnership with the National Science Foundation.”
Multiple professors and administrators at Northeastern had no knowledge of the matter or felt they did not have enough experience with grants and declined to comment.
“We cannot afford to waste the little money we do have to conduct government funded research,” Amar Fernald, freshman political science major, said. “A lot of money may have been wasted when it could have been used for something productive.”
Although the integrity of research conducted by Northeastern has not been brought into question, it remains vague how much funding was actually used for project-related expenses.
Photo by Brian Bae.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article said the university’s External Affairs department could not be reached for comment. The department issued a statement to The News.