A Saga of Destruction: Financial Misconduct Leads to Destroyed Careers, Research Data, and Cell Lines
Nancy R. Gough, Owner, BioSerendipity, LLC, a science communications company
Financial misconduct, a hostile work environment, destruction of research output, and theft of materials and equipment…. What has been going on at the University of Copenhagen (KU) in Denmark? On 30 October 2017, four members from the lab of Dr. Rune Linding filed a lawsuit against KU for financial losses. A year later, the police turned over a case to the Danish Public Prosecutor regarding the theft of laboratory equipment and loss of research materials, data, and samples from the lab of Dr. Rune Linding. KU is charged with these crimes! In documents and interviews with persons knowledgeable about the events who wish to remain anonymous, I have uncovered a terrible case of administrative bullying, financial misconduct, and irreplaceable loss of research. At the time of publication, KU had not responded to requests for comments.
The Linding lab’s research focuses on using “big data” to explore and predict the behavior of biological systems. A goal is to “forecast cell behavior with an accuracy similar to that of weather or aircraft models.” This kind of scientific approach has many clinical and translational applications from understanding how disease and pathological states arise to predicting the outcome of a therapeutic treatment and discovering new strategies for treatment and prevention.
His lab has received funding from multiple sources, has published more than 60 scientific articles, developed several publicly available research tools, and been featured in the general and scientific news. Dr. Linding has served as an expert panelist for scientific webinars and on the Editorial Board of Science Signaling.
Punishing the Successful
Normally, receiving a grant is cause for celebration. Not for Dr. Rune Linding. In 2013, he received a 20,103,232 DKK (~$3 million dollars) grant from Innovation Fund Denmark for “MorphoMap,” a 4-year project to identify the biological networks that enable cancer cells to metastasize.
As with many research projects, this one was multinational involving labs in Denmark, Germany, and the US. The Linding lab was responsible for performing most of the research. The lab of Dr. Janine Erler at KU was to perform the validation experiments with animal models and serve as consultants for the cell culture experiments. Other collaborators included: Dr. Morten Sommer at Technical University of Denmark (DTU), Dr. Norbert Perrimon at Harvard Medical School and Dr. Douglas Lauffenburger at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Massachusetts, Dr. Martin Daffertshofer at PerkinElmer in Germany, Dr. Mikkel W. Pedersen at Symphogen in Denmark, and Dr. Eng Lim Goh at Silicon Graphics, Inc. (now HPE) in California. This project represented what appeared to be a perfect example of an international team of experts performing a multi-disciplinary research study that would provide insights into a key health issue and help train the next generation of scientists. The reality turned out to be much different.
Although Dr. Linding and Dr. Erler were married at the time the grant started and they collaborated and copublished, their labs focused in different areas of cancer research and at different institutes. Dr. Erler’s lab was at Biotech Research & Innovation Centre (BRIC) in KU; Dr. Linding’s lab was in the Department of Systems Biology at DTU. This department was part of Center for Biological Sequence Analysis, which has since been reorganized.
Friction between Dr. Linding and the head of this Center, Dr. Søren Brunak, led the DTU administration to ask Dr. Linding to step down as the principal investigator and Dr. Longden to take over. After seeking legal advice, all parties agreed to transfer the Linding lab to BRIC in the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences under Dr. Kristian Helin.
Moving the lab to a new institute seemed like a perfect solution. Except in August 2014 when Linding’s lab was to relocate to BRIC, there wasn’t laboratory space available. So, KU rented the space that Dr. Linding’s lab occupied at DTU through the end of September 2017. This affiliation and administration change could have solved the issues.
Unfortunately, the physical location of the lab remained a problem. Dr. Brunak appointed an “overseer” (Dr. Per Hägglund) for all instruments and equipment purchased by the Linding lab while affiliated with DTU. Immediately, this created problems. The Linding’s lab members could not authorize maintenance to the equipment. Emails and documents from September 2014 state, “only Per Hägglund is entitled to make decisions regarding maintenance of instruments,” and that “disciplinary actions” may result if maintenance was not pre-approved by Dr. Hägglund. Although the documents clearly state that this limitation only applied to equipment belonging to DTU, the problems sparking the threat of disciplinary action arose over maintenance of equipment purchased by the MorphoMap grant funds, which did not belong to DTU.
The difficult situation continues for another year, not only with ongoing problems with equipment maintenance but also with the Linding lab denied or having limited access to shared equipment at DTU. In response to requests for more information about problems gaining access to a mass spectrometer at DTU and with a meeting with the funding agency coming up in September 2015, Dr. Longden contacted Dr. Helin. In this email, Dr. Longden expressed concern that the project would continue to have problems and that it would be inappropriate to report to the funding agency that all issues had been resolved. In his response, Dr. Helin threatened to tell the funding agency that the project should be shut down and wrote, “we have a couple of persons in the Linding lab who gets fired the week after.”
In 2016, Dr. Linding and Dr. Erler divorced. Dr. Linding also sought to leave BRIC. Given the unpleasant situation for the lab, the uncomfortable personal situation with Dr. Erler, and with the agreement for the rented space coming to an end on September 2017, Dr. Linding sought to move the lab to the Center for GeoGenetics under Dr. Eske Willerslev at the Natural History Museum of Denmark. Although the Natural History Museum is part of KU, it has different administrators and deans than those in the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences. This also would have moved the lab physically out of DTU. Scientifically, this center would have been a great fit with the Linding lab’s projects that use principles of evolutionary conservation to study complex human diseases. Again, this seemed like a perfect solution to the personal and professional issues.
Discovering Misspent Funds
In the course of reconciling the funds that would move to the Natural History Museum, Dr. Longden found gross misspending, 3,755,519 DKK (more than $500,000) in approved and yet-to-be-approved budgets, on the MorphoMap grant. Financial reports showed that some of the misspending went to pay salaries and purchase research materials for unrelated projects in the lab of Dr. Janine Erler. Although she was a collaborator on the grant, none of the spending was related to the project and no data for MorphoMap had been produced by the Erler lab. Other misspending was related to inappropriate allocation by BRIC administrators, who failed to record some charges as overhead instead of against the operating budget.
Dr. Longden brought these problems to the attention of the finance office. KU restored some of the misspent funds to the grant’s operating funds. But these did not include the funds spent by the Erler lab on staff salaries, animals, or other lab materials. Without a satisfactory resolution and with time rapidly running out, in July and again in August 2017, Dr. Longden took his concerns all the way to the Dean (Ulla M. Wewer) and Chief Financial Officer for the Faculty of Health, who referred the problem back to Dr. Helin. Dr. Helin performed an internal investigation, which concluded on 11 September 2017 that no misspending had occurred.
Despite a finding that the funds had been spent properly, Dr. Helin offered to return a fraction of the misspent funds (600,000 DKK /$90,000) back to the grant. Additionally, Dr. Erler was to withdraw from the MorphoMap project. The explanation was that “because of lack of progress in the MorphoMap project,” the funds could be used for “related research” by to pay members of the Erler lab and purchase supplies for the Erler lab. This response didn’t make sense to the researchers responsible to the funding agency for the budget.
Indeed, Dr. Longden was so distressed by this response from KU that he wrote to the Ministry of Higher Education and Science (Minister Søren Pind) on 18 September 2017 to explain the situation and suggest that the response from the department indicated that this type of misuse of funds was a regular occurrence, thus an investigation into their conduct may be warranted. Dr. Linding declined this offer of partial return of the funds.
Destroying a Lab
Within a week of declining this “offer,” it became impossible for the lab to continue performing research. The official justification was that the period of employment and space rental was ending. However, multiple exchanges with the administration and Dr. Longden failed to resolve how materials, such as cell lines, lab equipment, consumable laboratory products, the supercomputer, and archived data, were to be stored or where they should be transferred until new laboratory space was acquired for the Linding lab. These laboratory resources were not only funded by the MorphoMap grant, but many also related to other projects in the Linding lab and had been funded by other grants.
Mette Bjørnlund, an administrator at BRIC who reported directly to Dr. Helin, took action against the lab. She froze all funding for the Linding lab, cancelled the standing order for liquid nitrogen, denied the lab access to their own data stored on KU servers, ordered archived data deleted, and had the lab’s supercomputer taken offline.
Additionally, Ms. Bjørnlund effectively “stole” the equipment and research materials purchased with funds awarded to Dr. Linding. She redistributed the items to other researchers at both DTU and BRIC. The members of the Linding lab were left in limbo. Worse yet, Bjørnlund refused to transfer the contracts of the Linding lab members to the Natural History Museum. Ultimately, the Natural History Museum withdrew their offer to the Linding lab on the basis that the lab had insufficient funding. Of course, this determination was made using budget information supplied by BRIC.
Consequently, four members of the lab subsequently filed a civil suit against the KU on 30 October 2017. Additionally, these four researchers, through their lawyers, filed a police report on 20 November 2017, claiming that DTU or BRIC or both committed embezzlement (related to the redistribution of materials) and vandalism (related to the damage to the supercomputer and data related to MorphoMap).
Involving the Funding Agency
Innovation Fund Denmark was notified of the concerns about misuse of funds by both Dr. Longden and Minister Søren Pind in the Fall of 2017. Innovation Fund performed an investigation that extended through March 2018. Financial reports approved by Dr. Linding (as the grant holder) for 2014 and 2015 were provided, as well as information from meetings and project plans submitted by Dr. Linding in Fall of 2016 and Spring of 2017, indicating that the project’s goals were achievable. The ruling in May 2018 was that the budgets for 2014 and 2015 were not disputable.
However, Dr. Longden was partially vindicated by the funding agency. In the ruling sent by Peter Aadal Nielsen (Scientific Officer of the Innovation Fund), the agency determined that BRIC could not use allegations of inadequate project management or communication to justify using the grant funds for projects unrelated to the funded project. Consequently, the 2016 and 2017 budgets were deemed partially misspent by the BRIC administration. Innovation Fund Denmark also concluded that the grant holder, Dr. Linding, and not the university’s administrative unit, BRIC, held final budgetary responsibility.
By July 2018, BRIC provided updated financial statements for 2016 and 2017 to Innnovation Fund. These statements accepted the agency’s ruling and restored some of the funds to MorphoMap grant. Dr. Linding continued to request additional investigation and disputed specific findings of the ruling by Innovation Fund. With this outcome, Dr. Longden wrote again to the Minister of Higher Education and Science (Tommy Ahlers).
Innovation Fund ultimately engaged an independent auditor, Deliotte, to review the disputed financial reports and address the specific issues raised in Dr. Linding’s response to the Innovation Fund ruling. The independent audit of the 2016 and 2017 budget and disputed issues was completed in February 2019 and Innovation Fund issued a final ruling on 3 May 2019. In the revised budgets provide by BRIC, Deliotte identified funds that had not be properly restored to the grant based on the first ruling by Innovation Fund and identified additional funds that had been spent without adequate documentation supporting their relevance to the MorphoMap project (and for which the Linding lab had not authorized).
Innovation Fund, Dr. Linding and his colleagues, and BRIC were given a chance to respond to the audit report. On the basis of the audit, Innovation Fund determined that 2 of the 4 specifically disputed expenses were inappropriately attributed to the MorphoMap grant. Dr. Linding and colleagues responded to the audit indicating that some of the findings in the report were based on false information provided by BRIC. However, Dr. Longden told me that he feels fully vindicated in his decision to blow the whistle about financial misconduct at BRIC.
While the lab members may feel vindicated, the outcome is still a tragedy. KU had already destroyed the research output from this grant and several others. The loss of research materials from the cell freezer included
· >500 cell lines engineered to express specific protein kinases or kinase fusion proteins (created as part of a European Research Council grant awarded to Dr. Linding)
· a panel of 30 breast cancer cell lines engineered to express proteins for live-cell imaging of nuclear and cytoplasmic compartments (created as part of the MorphoMap project)
· and another set of breast cancer cells engineered with point mutations to be used to test new candidate cancer therapeutics (created as part of the MorphoMap project).
These cells are not replaceable by simply ordering them from a company. They must be recreated by the researchers. The lab also lost genomic and proteomic samples from cell lines and human tissues (normal and cancer tissue). These are also not replaceable. The experiments would need to be repeated and the samples obtained again. Fourteen years and more than 200 terabytes of data were lost by destroying the archive and damaging the supercomputer. These data are also irreplaceable.
Some of the destroyed data and cell lines supported 4 published studies. Other data had yet to be analyzed, and the newly generated cell lines had yet to be used to validate and follow up on the findings that would have arisen from the analysis of the lost data.
Two PhD students’ educations were interrupted, and two post-doctoral fellows left the lab without any publications.
The criminal case based on the police reports filed by the Linding lab members was transferred to the Danish Public Prosecutor on 18 October 2018.
At this time, Innovation Fund has ruled that 95% of the funds spent by the Erler lab in 2016 and 2017 must be repaid to the MorphoMap grant and that BRIC had misspent another ~400,000 DKK in funds that had been marked as “approved” by the Linding lab, even though no one in the lab had approved the expenditures. The civil and criminal cases are still open.
KU has reorganized BRIC, and Mette Bjørnlund no longer appears to work at KU. Although she continues to show in the search results, all of the links to her produce “page not found” errors. Dr. Brunak is no longer at DTU. Instead, he is at KU in the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research. Although Dr. Helin maintains his affiliation with KU and BRIC; in September 2018, he took a position at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
According to LinkedIn, Dr. Linding is a “Lead Researcher at Humboldt University of Berlin.” However, his lab website is still listed with a BRIC copyright.
Dr. Longden does not have an updated affiliation and remains listed only on the Linding Lab web pages. He has continued to work with locally stored data that was not destroyed, which has resulted in 1 publication (Engel et al., Bowhead: Bayesian modelling of cell velocity during concerted cell migration. PLOS Comp. Biol. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005900). Publishing any of the findings is very difficult, because addressing issues raised by the reviewers is difficult or impossible unless the issues can be addressed with the data that has not been lost.
Looking at the Future
Rather than destroying the output of in excess of 54 million in DKK (8.3 million in USD) in research funds, KU should have provided a supportive environment, worked with Dr. Linding to improve management of the project, and performed appropriate oversight of its administrators. The institution failed to deliver on its stated mission of “provid[ing] a framework for critical thinking, insights and a quest for truth for the benefit of society,“ “based on independent research and research-based education at the highest level.” Some could say that this is just KU following the Law of Jante:
“a code of conduct that is common in Nordic countries, that portrays doing things out of the ordinary, being overtly personally ambitious, or not conforming, as unworthy and inappropriate.”
From my perspective, it is difficult to imagine a positive resolution. A series of events that could possibly enable the research to at least partially recover and result in the ability of the public to gain something from the progress that was made on the MorphoMap project would be to reinstate Dr. Linding to the faculty at KU, let him join the Centre for GeoGenetics, and provide his lab space at the Natural History Museum of Denmark in this center, and transfer any materials that remain for the lab, the funds, the supercomputer, and any data that has not been destroyed. This seems unlikely. The issues surrounding Dr. Linding and Dr. Longden and the others involved in the suit will make it difficult for any of these researchers to be successful at KU. A reputation for being “difficult” will precede them and color any interactions they have with the administration and other researchers.
I think training on how to manage grants, understand budgets (both simple and detailed), and use of the accounting system is needed for all faculty with budget responsibility. Each institute should require training for faculty who apply for grants and for those with authority to sign for expenses. This training should be offered once or twice a year, at a minimum. Not only would this provide critical information for the scientists who have to manage the funds, but it would provide a chance for the researchers to meet and get to know the administrators in finance and accounting. These are the people who provide the budget reports and who would need to be contacted if problems were found or if questions arose.
The administrators also need to understand the potential consequences of budgetary actions. They need to understand which payments can be safely delayed or declined and which will result in irreplaceable loss of samples. For example, freezers and liquid nitrogen should be on the high priority for payment list. If those cease to function, the lost research materials cannot always be replaced. More understanding and a collegial relationship, rather than an adversarial one, would benefit both sides.
Disclosure: Dr. Linding served on the Editorial Board while I was Editor of Science Signaling.