- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 27, 2015

Back when Bill Clinton was still president, the National Science Foundation began doling out millions of dollars to Northeastern University to perform research on nuclear particle collider technology. The work wasn’t even based in America, but rather inside Europe’s main nuclear research agency.

More than a decade later, U.S. officials have finally figured out that taxpayers were misserved.

Just last week, the Justice Department reached a settlement that will require the university to pay back $2.7 million — just one-third of what it was paid — in the latest example of federally funded science research gone astray.

“It appears that Northeastern doesn’t just specialize in particle smashers. They also do a pretty good job of smashing taxpayer dollars into a black hole of waste and unaccountability,” said Ryan Ellis, tax policy director at Americans for Tax Reform, a taxpayer watchdog group. “Why are we paying them to find a God particle again?”

For failing to perform the sort of rigorous oversight needed when taxpayer dollars are committed to research, the NSF and Northeastern University jointly win this week’s Golden Hammer, a weekly distinction awarded by The Washington Times highlighting examples of wasteful federal spending.

“Universities that receive federal research funds have a duty to ensure that their researchers use those funds only for their intended purposes,” said U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz in a statement announcing the recent settlement. “In this matter, Northeastern failed to adequately safeguard National Science Foundation grant money that had been awarded for the sole purpose of supporting important scientific research.”

The U.S. government said the school repeatedly violated transparency and verification requirements by approving and dispersing numerous payments of NSF grant funds to accounts the lead researcher, Stephen Reucroft, a physics professor at Northeastern, controlled at CERN without proper justification or verification. CERN is the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

Northeastern also failed, for more than two years, to notify NSF when it discovered significant problems accounting for the funding.

According to the settlement, the largest ever with the NSF, the school “approved and disbursed at least 26 advances, totaling approximately $8.4 million in NSF funds, to CERN team accounts without required verification of need and sufficient oversight.”

In a written statement Northeastern University accepted responsibility for the misspent funds.

“The conduct in question related to accounting and grant oversight; the government did not question the quality or scientific integrity of the work conducted by Northeastern researchers,” the school’s statement reads. “The university self-reported the discrepancies to the funding agency, the National Science Foundation, as soon as they were discovered and fully cooperated with the agency’s review. The faculty member in question is no longer employed by Northeastern, and the university has made significant enhancements to its personnel, procedural, and financial controls to support its robust research enterprise.

“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, which continues to fund many important research endeavors at the university,” it said.

Mr. Reucroft, who retired from Northeastern in 2010 and now assists entrepreneurs as president of a company called ThinkIncubate Inc., did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mr. Reucroft said he had not been contacted by any investigators and could only assume the complaint involved his work on the Compact Muon Solenoid, one of the particle detectors at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider on the Fresh-Swiss border near Geneva, Switzerland.

“The CMS construction project was a $20-million award, and there were many of us concerned that NU did not have the resources to handle such a big award,” Mr. Reucroft told The Chronicle. “I guess I had faith in NU.”

He denied authorizing any improper expenses and said he had not been contacted by the school since his retirement.

In the DOJ’s release, Allison Lerner, inspector general of the National Science Foundation, said, “Recipients of government funds to support scientific research have both a financial responsibility and a 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.”

Under federal regulations, the universities receiving NSF research grants bear the brunt of oversight responsibility. Universities that receive award funds must have documentation of salary payments, purchases of equipment, travel, expenses and all other items charged to the awards. Cash advances are limited to the recipient’s immediate needs.

But tax advocates say this case should demonstrate the need for the NSF to reform its regulations to provide maximum transparency in grant and subsidy programs.

“Both Northeastern University and the National Science Foundation dropped the ball on this, and it is costing taxpayers. There is already some cynicism about taxpayer-funded research, and abuse of this magnitude only feeds it. NU and NSF should have conducted better oversight, and once it found out about the fraud, NU should have coughed up the cash instead of dragging this out and costing taxpayers more cash,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

“Before NU gets another grant — and it shouldn’t be too soon — there must be vigorous oversight and accountability measures put in place. NSF needs to review its procedures for grant awards and monitor to ensure taxpayers don’t get bilked again,” he said.

According to the settlement agreement, Northeastern University will submit to a five-year compliance agreement to ensure that proper oversight and safeguards are in place for future research awards.

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