Path to the right result

September 15, 2000

How can researchers best manage conflicts of interest? Nicholas Winterton of the MRC explores the issue.

It is vital that those funding and undertaking research know what standards of professional conduct and work are expected of them. Working practices must be seen to guard against plagiarism, selection, enhancement or fabrication of results.

The Medical Research Council has produced, in consultation with our researchers, a Guide on the Principles of Good Research Practice, which has been circulated to all MRC staff engaged in research. It brings together advice on the standards of conduct essential to the proper undertaking of research. It provides guidance in such areas as experimental design, laboratory techniques, the use of equipment, data gathering and storage, the publication of results, the exploitation of results, the monitoring of training, supervision, data recording and notebooks, and the use of spot checks. The guide is intended to assist in the training of young researchers and to serve as an aide-memoire for more established scientists, both for their own work and for the management of others. A shortened version of the guide is about to be published so that it can be made more widely available to the research community.

It is not only those directly engaged in scientific research who need guidance on how best to maintain integrity. So do those administering and managing research funds where principles relating to not deceiving or knowingly misleading scientific committees or review bodies or the general public are key. There is also the principle of ensuring that scientific bodies themselves have addressed properly the information before them.

At the level of the individual, the other area for maintaining integrity is in the recognition, declaration and management of conflicts of interest, that is, where someone's professional integrity might be thought to be brought into question because of the nature of their private interests. Here, guidance needs to be rigorous - in that there are certain clear principles that must not be breached - but it also needs to be both credible and realistic. We cannot eliminate conflicts of interest altogether - indeed I shall argue that on a number of occasions it is undesirable to do so - but we must know they exist and manage them accordingly. Fundamental principles are that conflicts of interest must always be declared, recorded and kept up to date and that we must not be the decision-taker in any area where we have a direct financial or other personal interest.

However, using the issue of scientists holding equity stakes in start-up companies, I would like to illustrate the complexity of the problem and why I maintain that conflicts should be managed rather than eliminated. This also ties in with concerns about the impact of the "commercialisation of science". What are the MRC's objectives in exploiting research commercially? The first objective is to work through the mechanism judged most likely to develop MRC technology into products and services useful to society - technology transfer is a key component to the delivery of our health mission. Subsidiary objectives - and they are subsidiary - are to maximise the contribution to national wealth creation and UK industrial competitiveness, and to maximise income to the MRC in the medium to long term.

Start-up companies are often the best way of seeing that MRC technology is exploited. The involvement of the inventor is essential in the early years of a new company. Taking an equity stake is regarded by the venture capital community as evidence of commitment to and confidence in the new technology, and as a necessary incentive to continued efforts on behalf of the company. It is also only just that they should be rewarded for their efforts on behalf of the company. However, there is clearly the risk that scientists might then concentrate too much effort on research related to the company's commercial development. This is a risk that has to be handled through open disclosure of the potential conflict of interest and its management through the scientific director and the peer review process.

In focusing on these two areas of interest in relation to maintaining integrity in research, I do not underplay the wider environment in which we operate. We should not forget that the rationale for the existence of the research councils is that they should operate at arm's length from government and, in my experience, the Haldane Principle is still intact. Another protection is transparency of procedures, and this is one area where I hope that the MRC's new consumer liaison group will play a role. This was set up to advise on ways of promoting effective consumer engagement in MRC activities and to ensure that the MRC is aware of and is able to respond to consumer interests and concerns about research. All the members were recruited through a process of public advertisement and the group has a majority of lay members. It is also free to determine its own agenda.

Trying to establish the right environment is not in itself sufficient. There need to be widely known procedures whereby those who in good faith believe misconduct has occurred can raise this within the organisation. Organisations have codes of conduct for staff that enable them to raise concerns about improper conduct, with access to the most senior levels in the organisation. The MRC has also had a policy and procedure for inquiring into allegations of scientific misconduct for nearly three years now, and we have some practical experience of its use, which may be of help to other organisations.

Nicholas Winterton is executive director of the Medical Research Council. This article is an abridged version of his presentation to the British Association Festival of Science.

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