Funding warning in new UK research integrity concordat

Tough sanctions on institutions that ignore research integrity rules in new concordat backed by Universities UK and research funders

October 25, 2019
Source: istock

UK universities risk being barred from accessing public research funding if they do not have structures in place to guard against research misconduct.

Under a revised concordat to support research integrity, published on 25 October and signed by UK Research and Innovation – which distributes more than £7 billion annually, mainly through its seven research councils and Research England – funders of research have agreed to “only provide funding to organisations that can demonstrate that appropriate structures are in place to ensure research integrity in their research activities”.

The concordat, which replaces a 2012 agreement on research integrity, has also been signed by the Wellcome Trust, which spends almost £1 billion a year on research, the National Institute for Health Research and other regional research funding bodies, as well as Universities UK.

The commitment by research funders replaces a pledge contained in the 2012 concordat, which requires universities and research institutes to “conform to the ethical, legal and professional standards relevant to their research”. However, it failed to mention that funding could be removed if they fail to safeguard against misconduct.

Other sections of the 2012 concordat have also been strengthened in the revised document – with the responsibilities of researchers, employers of researchers and research funders made more explicit in the new text.

A new section on dealing with research misconduct adds more detail on the different types of ethical breaches that can occur in research, stipulating the need for “transparent, timely, robust and fair processes” for investigating cases of potential misconduct.

The new document also provides more detail on how institutions should protect and encourage whistleblowers, as well as ensure their allegations are investigated fairly.

The revised document responds to many criticisms made by an inquiry led by the Science and Technology Select Committee, whose report in July 2018 identified challenges with the earlier version of the concordat. The inquiry raised concerns that some universities may be hushing up incidents of research misconduct given that one in four universities had not published a statement on research integrity that detailed how it had handled allegations of misconduct.

As well as tougher sanctions on poor practice, the new concordat’s language has been tightened, with expectations being replaced by commitments or requirements. In addition to publishing their annual statement, research organisations will also be required to send a link to the secretariat of the concordat’s signatories to ensure statements are accessible.

An annual forum will convene to assess progress and work on good practice for the sector, from which a statement will be made publicly available, while signatories have committed to regularly reviewing the concordat’s principles every five years.

Paul Boyle, chair of the UK Research Integrity Forum and vice-chancellor of Swansea University, said that the “need for openness and transparency [was] greater than ever”, which meant “research must be undertaken in line with the stringent principles laid out in this concordat”.

“The higher education sector has a responsibility to adhere to the concordat’s commitments to ensure continued public trust in this research,” said Professor Boyle.

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