Funders ‘not doing enough’ to reduce medical research waste

Amid crisis over reproducibility, agencies face call for ‘greater transparency and accountability’

March 20, 2017
Medical research
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Medical research funding bodies are “not doing enough” to reduce wasteful grant spending, according to the co-author of a study investigating the issue.

Mona Nasser, clinical lecturer in evidence-based dentistry at Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry, was part of a group of international researchers that investigated how national research funders across nine countries – including the UK, the US and Australia – monitored and took steps to reduce waste in the research they funded. Looking at organisations’ websites, the researchers sought information on how the national bodies decide what to fund, and how they ensure this research is not wasteful. 

Their conclusion, published as a letter in The Lancet, is that information on the policies and processes used by funding agencies to reduce waste “is generally not transparent or readily available”.

With estimates suggesting that up to 85 per cent of biomedical and health research may be wasted because it asks the wrong question, is badly designed, is not published or is poorly reported, the study raises questions as to whether funding bodies are succeeding in their role to help reduce research wastage.

Only one of the 11 agencies considered, the UK’s National Institute for Health Research, required funding applications to include a systematic assessment of existing evidence; while four agencies demanded such an exercise to show that clinical trials were needed. 

Only six of the 11 agencies explicitly demanded publication of full reports of the research that they had funded, and none had a strategy to make available full datasets of all projects.

Dr Nasser told Times Higher Education that medical research funders were “not doing enough to reduce research waste”.

“They are likely to be funding studies that are unnecessary and failing to fund studies that would provide answers to the questions that matter most to patients, practitioners and the public,” she said. “There is a need for greater transparency and accountability in their process, which includes how they set their [funding] priorities.”

Assessments of existing research would provide “scientific, ethical and environmental justification” for new studies, Dr Nasser said. The lack of transparency, she added, made it “challenging to evaluate the performance” of funding agencies and to identify ways to reduce research waste.

Frances Rawle, head of corporate governance and policy at the Medical Research Council, said that her organisation “strongly promote[s]” principles of research transparency to “make the research process and findings as open, understandable and reproducible as possible”, and supported “data-sharing initiatives to increase the availability of study data for re-use…and to stimulate new discoveries”.

While she agreed that the researchers’ questions were good, she cautioned that their answers “mostly came down to their own interpretation and judgement of what appears on an organisation’s website”.

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