VA Brain Injury Research Funds Wasted, Claims University of Texas Doctor

Austin American-Statesman

Austin VA researcher alleges mismanagement: Van Boven says superiors have hindered research into traumatic brain injury.

February 11, 2008 – When the Department of Veterans Affairs announced last year that it was starting a brain injury research program at the University of Texas, Dr. Robert Van Boven predicted that his program would become “the birthplace for new standards of treatment” for wounded troops.

Now, seven months after he was hired, Van Boven said his VA bosses are responsible for “gross mismanagement, waste and possible fraud” concerning the program. Van Boven said program money is being used for research unrelated to brain injuries and that peer reviewers found that the work had no merit. After raising complaints, Van Boven said, his bosses threatened to further cut his research time. He filed official grievances with his Central Texas bosses on Feb. 1 and with the VA’s Office of the Inspector General on Tuesday.

“As a private citizen, I find it an unacceptable use of taxpayer money,” he said. “And now they’re trying to punish me for being a whistle-blower.”

VA officials said last week that they have formed a panel to look into Van Boven’s allegations but declined to comment further.

“At this point, we can’t comment before the investigation is concluded,” said Nelia Schrum, a VA spokeswoman in Temple.

Van Boven is the head of a program housed at UT’s J.J. Pickle Research Campus in North Austin, which is home to one of the world’s most sophisticated magnetic resonance imaging scanners. The VA is renting space and owns the right to use the scanner once a week.

The program headed by Van Boven is funded by a 2005 VA research grant and managed by the VA’s Central Texas arm. The original grant was $5.4 million and intended for all types of work using the imager.

For the first year and a half, $1.2 million was used to pay for imaging research into diabetic retinopathy, a condition that can cause diabetics to gradually go blind. The lead researcher, Dr. Kevin Carlin, was examining whether the body gives certain clues that a diabetic is at serious risk of blindness.

Van Boven was hired last summer and took over the entire grant. He said he wasn’t told his budget would also include research unrelated to brain injuries. Schrum said the grant Van Boven is managing is intended primarily but not solely for brain injury research. She could not say whether Van Boven was told that the grant could also be used to fund other research.

Van Boven says the eyesight research was flawed at best, would not produce results and needed to be suspended. But he said his bosses would not let him. He said Carlin and a consultant working with him have cost an additional $190,000 since Van Boven was hired, while producing no discernible results. Schrum said Carlin would not comment.

Van Boven alleges that when he complained, his boss threatened to cut his research time by 40 percent by assigning other tasks. He alleges his bosses took other actions against him, including chastising him for volunteering to help organize a fun run to raise awareness for traumatic brain injury and for inviting U.S. Sen. John Cornyn to the announcement without approval from his VA superiors.; (512) 445-3673

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