Brickbats for research review's partial diagnosis

January 20, 2011

A review of medical research regulation has been criticised for failing to acknowledge social scientists' concerns about excessive red tape.

An Academy of Medical Sciences report, released last week, concludes that health research in the UK is being "stifled" by a "regulatory and governance framework that has become unnecessarily complex and burdensome".

A New Pathway for the Regulation and Governance of Health Research, written by a working group chaired by Sir Michael Rawlins, emeritus professor of clinical pharmacology at Newcastle University, recommends the creation of a new Health Research Agency to carry out all NHS research governance checks and ethical approvals.

Social scientists joined the chorus of approval for the suggestion, but lamented the report's failure to acknowledge that the kind of interview- and observation-based research into health services carried out by social scientists required lighter-touch regulation than medical research.

In a statement, the Academy of Social Sciences, which submitted evidence to the review, says it is "deeply disappointed" that the report took "a very limited view of the scope of health research, implying it is solely medical".

Robert Dingwall, professor of social sciences at Nottingham Trent University, said the omission risked "repeating the failures of the past" by imposing "one-size-fits-all" regulation designed to control medical research involving "potentially toxic chemicals".

He said some social scientists had stopped doing research in the NHS after wearying of "ill-informed obstruction at the local level from people not very familiar with health services research", and warned that such "confrontation and confusion" would continue for another 20 years if the Rawlins Review was used as the blueprint for reform.

While social science regulation was not within the Rawlins committee's strict terms of reference (it focused on clinical trials), Professor Dingwall said he expected the report to at least note the issue.

"Having taken the trouble to lay out the problem, that is the minimum level of respect we could properly look for," he said. "Without it you are forced to use words such as 'arrogant'. I haven't seen this kind of indifference (to social science) in medics for a long time."

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