US scientists plan new watchdog to tackle research misconduct

After years of asking, National Academy of Sciences makes integrity push across university silos

February 24, 2019
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The US National Academy of Sciences is proposing to establish a policy board tasked with combating research misconduct, amid frustration about persistent ethical shortcomings in the country’s universities.

The academy plans to start the work of creating the new organisation at its annual meeting in April. It would be designed to span the existing piecemeal system of watchdogs overseeing different disciplines and different parts of the research ecosystem and to provide guidance on what constitutes good science.

The new board would not perform misconduct investigations or oversee those done by universities or other regulators; instead, it would work with universities, funders, journals and individual scientists to share best practice and develop guidelines for misconduct investigations.

In Nature, the president of the academy, Marcia McNutt, writes with four colleagues that the US’ current research integrity system is “fractured, inefficient [and] inconsistent”.

“As experts who have led efforts to improve the US scientific enterprise, we know that it cannot be optimised piecemeal,” they write. “To get the best returns on investment in science, we must extend the focus beyond compliance and individual conduct, to build an overarching culture of integrity and quality. What’s needed is a forum for cross-cutting discussions that yield authoritative guidance and resources.”

Professor McNutt and colleagues say that such an organisation has been repeatedly called for in recent decades but has never been created, perhaps because, by the time that reports making such a case are published, the perceived crisis that prompted their commissioning had long passed.

The academy’s most recent report on the topic, issued in 2017, said that serious cases of research misconduct had begun occurring with “disturbing regularity”. It said that, although comprehensive data are elusive, federal agencies had been experiencing steady increases, with misconduct findings at the National Science Foundation rising from one in 2003 and two in 2004 to 14 in 2013 and 22 in 2014.

It also offered a list of high-profile cases, including fabrications of data by Harvard University psychologist Marc Hauser, University of Connecticut cardiovascular researcher Dipak Das, and Toho University of Medicine faculty member Yoshitaka Fujii; as well as allegations involving Japanese stem cell biologist Yoshiki Sasai and South Korean biochemist Hyung-In Moon.

The analysis attributed the increased prevalence to various factors, including rising rates of global collaboration that can create teams so large that no one member understands all the details of a project, more intense competitive pressure for results spurred by funding cuts, and a faster pace of reporting results because of social media and public interest.

The planned policy board is necessary for the scientific community to understand the complexity and interconnection of those causes, said the chair of the panel that wrote the 2017 report, Robert Nerem, an emeritus professor of bioengineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Professor Nerem acknowledged there already were many existing entities that tackled misconduct issues. However, the efforts by publisher groups that offer advice on retractions and associations of scientists and of university administrators that guide their specific members, among others, were piecemeal and did not fully address all contributing factors.

The new organisation, say Professor McNutt and her colleagues, would follow the lead of more comprehensive scientific watchdog groups that exist or are being created in numerous other places – including Japan, Germany, Australia, Canada and the UK. Without it, they warn, the US “could see its international scientific leadership start to fade”.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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