Leader: Red tape makes academics an NHS casualty

May 25, 2007

Ask any academic anywhere in the country to identify the worst aspects of their job, and it is a fair bet that red tape in some form or other will come either at or near the top of the list.

Bureaucracy has always been one of the greatest bugbears in academia, but there are signs that in some areas of scholarly activity it has now reached almost unmanageable levels.

Just about any researcher who has ever had to prepare a proposal to conduct a study involving work with the National Health Service - arguably the greatest generator of red tape in the UK - will know that gaining approval for such a project can involve hundreds of hours of paperwork and months of waiting for checks to be carried out.

An investigation by The Times Higher has found that there is almost universal support for the rationale behind the system of checks and balances that is responsible for this extremely costly regime. Relatively recent events in the history of the development of health-related research ethics, such as the Alder Hey scandal in 2001, have highlighted the need for a system to protect hospital patients and ensure good practice by researchers working with the NHS.

The system also helps to protect researchers themselves from possible litigation brought by NHS patients, who are increasingly likely to be encouraged to make claims by any of the growing band of "ambulance chaser" personal injury lawyers if anything in a study goes wrong. Academics who can demonstrate that they have followed the proper procedures and that their research has been suitably vetted have a stronger defence in the face of a lawsuit.

It would appear, however, that a high proportion of academics now feel that the amount of bureaucracy involved in this process has risen to such levels that it threatens to snuff out research projects even before they are submitted for approval. Ideas for pilot studies in particular are being shelved because researchers do not have the time or the budgets to take on the mountain of paperwork they would have to deal with just to get the green light for the project.

If the views of academics who have expressed their opinions on this issue to The Times Higher are a fair reflection of feelings across the sector, then this is a serious state of affairs. It suggests that the price of bureaucracy could well be the loss of important and potentially life-saving or life-enhancing research. What impact might such a bureaucratic regime have had, for instance, on past breakthroughs that have helped shape the modern research ethics frameworkJ-such as the discovery of penicillin by Sir Alexander Fleming in 1929?

Thankfully, there are signs that this issue is now being addressed. The UK Clinical Research Collaboration, set up in 2004, has begun pushing through bureaucracy-busting initiatives with a sense of urgency. It has acknowledged that there is a significant problem and is working with universities, hospital trusts and their representative bodies on efforts to tackle it.

The UKCRC itself admits, however, that turning things around to create a more workable system could prove to be a task akin to bringing about the proverbial tanker.

Perhaps it is time, then, for education and health ministers to join forces behind a more concerted effort to speed up the proposed changes and apply them across the sector? Only last week, Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell was congratulating the Higher Education Funding Council for England on cutting spending on red tape by 20 per cent in a year. A similar drive to banish the "bureaucratic nightmare" faced by researchers working with the NHS could put Mr Rammell at the top of the list of academics' favourite politicians.

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