Health research buckles under burden of red tape

May 25, 2007

Researchers are overwhelmed by bureaucracy and a shortage of cash. Tony Tysome reports.

Academics have called for urgent action to end the "bureaucratic nightmare" that is currently stifling vital health-related research across the UK.

Thousands of researchers who are conducting studies involving the National Health Service are struggling to cope with red tape designed to regulate the quality of their work and protect hospital patients.

Research proposals across a broad range of disciplines, from cancer studies to sports and social science, are being held up or dropped altogether because of the time and costs involved in gaining approval from the governance and ethics committees of hospital trusts and universities, as well as agencies such as the Criminal Records Bureau.

Academics report that with each project proposal they are having to set aside about six months to wade through hundreds of hours of paperwork and checks. Some have warned that ideas for potentially groundbreaking studies are being left on the shelf because of the costs of bureaucracy.

Edward Winter, professor of physiology and exercise at Sheffield Hallam University, described the work involved as "immense". He said: "Everyone involved in NHS-related research is just utterly beleaguered. The bureaucracy required to meet the very laudable aims of the system is overwhelming."

Some university research heads have also pointed out that even when approved, projects involving the health service are expensive because the NHS does not pay full economic costs of research.

Nick Petford, pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise at Bournemouth University, said: "That is one of the biggest disincentives, because it means we always lose money doing this kind of research."

While work has now begun to try to streamline the process, organisations in charge of initiatives to cut bureaucracy have admitted that progress is likely to be slow. This week, the UK Clinical Research Collaboration, the umbrella body that is overseeing the changes, said that plans for a new model research contract between NHS trusts and universities were still "some way down the line".

A UKCRC spokesman admitted: "Anecdotally, researchers tell us they spend a lot of time at the beginning of a study trying to get everything in place.

If it delays a study from getting under way for several months that is a big cost in time and money."

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