Leader: Guidelines must cover research practices too

December 7, 2001

The Wellcome Trust is spending about £3 billion on research in its current five-year plan, most of it through universities. So its wish for the researchers it funds to adopt national criteria for openness and governance is likely to be fulfilled. A single system of guidelines for research practice is the right way ahead. While diversity of missions and methods is to be applauded, there is no scope for varying standards. And freedom of information almost always yields better results than keeping the lid on embarrassing facts.

However, there are some things nobody can legislate for, and incompetence is one of them. Mike Dexter, director of Wellcome, is right to point out that fiascos such as the famous brain mislabelling at the Institute of Animal Health should be dealt with openly rather than with whitewash. But the poor practice that led to it should never have taken hold in the first place - guidelines should also cover good working practices.

The next step is to involve a wider range of bodies in deciding what future guidelines should say. Research councils, charities and other funders, including the private sector, are obvious participants. But users of research are another important group that should not be neglected, as are the general public. Perhaps one of the citizen consultation exercises, beloved of the public understanding of science lobby, could be used to tell the experts what public opinion regards as acceptable in research practice.

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