Research funders up stakes on quality

March 14, 2003

Many universities are "blissfully unaware" of key funders' plans to enforce more rigorous research quality assurance standards, research leaders have said.

Concerns have been raised about a proposed new code of practice for research that aims to pave the way for external accreditation for laboratories in the long term. It was drafted by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Food Standards Agency, the Natural Environment Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

The plans have been under negotiation for some time and the funders insist there has been considerable discussion with stakeholders, including a workshop with a selection of institutes and universities two weeks ago.

But research leaders believe many universities remain completely in the dark. Jim Lynch, head of the school of biomedical and life sciences at the University of Surrey, who attended the workshop, said: "I think many universities will be surprised by these developments. Most people are blissfully unaware that this is happening."

The code emphasises quality of process as opposed to the quality of science, with the stated aim of ensuring research results are appropriate, rigorous and repeatable.

Universities argue that this is an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. Ian Haines, the head of the UK Deans of Science Committee, said his members had not been informed of the code and would be alarmed to hear of it.

He said: "This is another way of making sure that any group trying to kick-start research from a relatively low base is not even able to get started.

"It's a very clever way of creating more and more hurdles that one can argue are reasonable or appropriate in themselves but which in the end create an order of exclusion."

The expense of external accreditation is another key concern. Research leaders told The THES this was too much for universities, and that funders would have to shoulder the cost within research overheads.

So far Defra and the FSA have taken a harder line on enforcing this than the research councils. Both will expect researchers to sign an acceptance of the code, probably from late spring. And the FSA has stated it will fund only research from accredited organisations from 2006.

John Sherlock, head of Defra's agriculture, environment and food technology division, said: "I don't expect a mass conversion straight away. It isn't that we don't trust the research, but we need that extra assurance. If people aren't complying with these procedures, that is certainly a concern."

The BBSRC said Research Councils UK would be considering a common university auditing process for all the councils. "I think ultimately they will expect all government departments to follow suit," Professor Lynch said. "My feeling is this is very much the tip of the iceberg."

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