Leader: Panel must show its teeth early on to secure respect

April 14, 2006

The UK Panel for Research Integrity in Health and Biomedical Sciences is a welcome innovation. Purists will never accept that a body that is paid for by industry, the Government and the universities can be independent enough to have real influence. But it is hard to imagine who else would fund the panel if they did not. The best way for the panel to prove its independence is to fight some hard battles in its early life. One of its declared aims is "support for whistleblowers". History is littered with cases of whistleblowers whose careers suffered severe damage because of their commitment to the truth. If the panel can find ways for people to blow the whistle and survive professionally, it will have justified its existence.

The panel’s founders are also right to concentrate effort on improving the climate for research ethics. Just as the medical model for ethical approval has spread into new areas such as the social sciences, it is becoming apparent that it does not solve all the problems that today’s research throws up. One of the most important issues is that the many participants in research do not all have the same interests. Academics want papers in journals, the currency of career success. The National Health Service wants reassurance that it is using the ideal treatments, while companies are keen to have academic support for the claims they make about the effectiveness of their products. As The Times Higher has reported, companies do not always see the need to share full information on products and treatments with the universities that are asked to validate them. The panel could usefully draw up standard terms for contracts between universities and research funders that would make it clear that nobody is allowed any secrets before or during a research project. If the parties do not trust each other enough to sign such a clause, they should not be doing business in the first place.

The real objection to the panel’s remit is that it has decided not to get involved in specific cases. It aims instead to create a climate in which misconduct is less likely, via bland but potentially worthwhile initiatives such as holding training sessions and seminars. When malpractice is revealed, institutions often become defensive and react badly. University management has often seemed slow and underpowered when tricky ethical issues have arisen. Anything that improves its performance is welcome. But if the panel does not want to run malpractice inquiries itself, it might at least offer to facilitate them to ensure their impartiality. This would be only a small step beyond its present proposal to run a register of qualified people to sit on ethical inquiries. The panel is bound to be asked to comment on specific malpractice allegations. It will not be adequate to say that it cannot get involved in individual cases.

In deciding to focus on biomedicine, the panel has taken on a uniquely difficult remit. Here, and in other areas of research, most people are honest. But when the subject matter is human health, there is inherently more scope for controversy than in mathematics or literature. The sums of money are bigger than in other areas of research. And biomedicine has a frenetic culture of rapid-fire publishing that almost invites problem behaviour. While a distinguished historian could write three fat books in a long career, a neuroscientist might write six papers a year.

But the worst problem that the new panel faces may be underambition. The biosciences produce the most worrying scandals, as the Hwang case in Korea has shown. But high-profile misdeeds in US materials science prove that biologists have no monopoly on bad behaviour. After it proves its worth, the panel should extend its remit to the whole of research.

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