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Feds: Pitt researcher faked research docs for more than $2M in federal funding

April 2, 2018
The University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center in Oakland

A University of Pittsburgh professor accused of faking approval for human subject research to gain federal funding reached a settlement with the government that will cost more than $100,000 and bar him from obtaining grant research money.

Christian Schunn, a Pitt professor and researcher in education and psychology, will pay $132,027 to resolve allegations he violated the False Claims Act, according to a release from U.S. Attorney Scott Brady. He is also not allowed to apply for federal research grants through Oct. 15, 2019.

Schunn could not be reached for comment.

When research involves human subjects, the National Science Foundation, which awards grant money for research, requires that approval of the research by an institutional review board. The board is charged with making sure the rights and welfare of the human subjects are protected.

According to the release, between 2006 and 2016, Schunn faked numerous institutional review board approval documents in proposals for NSF funding e_SEmD funding that totaled more than $2.3 million, Brady said.

Schunn has received more than two dozen awards from NSF since 1998 totaling more than $50 million. His resume on Pitt’s Learning Research & Development Center website indicates he has worked for the university since 2001. He worked at George Mason University from 1998 to 2001. His personal website says he has co-authored two books about research and cognitive science.

A Pitt spokesman said the university had “nothing to share” regarding Schunn’s settlement and declined to say whether Schunn remains employed.

“Federally funded research involving human subjects requires IRB approval to ensure that the research is conducted safely, appropriately, and consensually,” said Allison Lerner, inspector general with the National Science Foundation. “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.”

The claims resolved by the settlement are allegations only, and there has been no determination of liability, Brady said.

Megan Guza is a Tribune-Revew staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8519, mguza@tribweb.com or via Twitter @meganguzaTrib.