Watchdog eyes scientific fraud

April 14, 2006

New panel calls on researchers to blow whistle and stamp out complacency over cheating

A new watchdog to promote research integrity was launched this week with a scathing attack on the "good chaps" network and general complacency in universities that has allowed fraud and misconduct to gain a foothold in the UK academic sector.

Sir Ian Kennedy, the chairman of the board of the new UK Panel for Research Integrity, said he had found that many universities' procedures for dealing with allegations of misconduct were "completely unequal to the task", "not fit for purpose" and often "pitiful".

At this week's launch, Michael Farthing, who will chair the panel's planning group, held up a copy of last week's Times Higher , and cited a report on the suspension of a whistleblower at Sheffield University as evidence that universities were not taking the issues seriously enough. He added that whistleblowers were failing to find an ear in their own institutions.

The panel - which is funded by a number of sources, including the UK higher education funding councils, research councils, government departments and, more controversially, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry - will initially cover research in the health and biomedical sciences only.

But Professor Farthing, who is principal of St George's Hospital Medical School, said he hoped it would soon cover misconduct in all fields. The panel, which has been ten years in the making, will have a permanent office and will be supported by a 24-strong board. It will not have regulatory or policing powers, but will focus on providing support and advice to whistleblowers, developing a code of good practice and maintaining a register of advisers to help institutions improve procedures and ensure that cases are handled effectively.

Sir Ian, who chairs the Healthcare Commission, said a priority would be to support universities. He said: "We looked at universities' procedures and many would not have survived attacks from anybody legally represented. They were not fit for purpose.

"The issue has not been taken seriously enough," he said. "There has been a theory that researchers are generally good chaps who couldn't possibly do anything improper and a sense that all is well. But that degree of complacency fails to take into account the pressures of academic life, where the rewards for making breakthroughs and getting published bring real pressures."

Professor Farthing said that the case of Aubrey Blumsohn, the Sheffield researcher suspended after turning to The Times Higher with concerns about the conduct of a drug study at his university, highlighted the need for a panel dedicated to research integrity.

"There are some sophisticated and highly concerned whistleblowers who cannot find an ear," he said. "Dr Blumsohn had been talking to the authorities at Sheffield for two years, but instead of taking his concerns seriously - and I don't know if they are right or wrong as I have not seen any evidence - they suspended him for the misdemeanour of talking to the press."

He said the panel would encourage whistleblowers to contact them and would seek to have their concerns investigated. But he acknowledged criticism that its funding sources, its base at the headquarters of Universities UK and its lack of investigatory powers could deter some.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "It needs to be, and must be seen to be, completely independent.

Providing support for whistleblowers is important, but if the panel is relying on funding from bodies that people may wish to blow the whistle on, there is a clear conflict of interest."

Peter Wilmshurst, a consultant cardiologist at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, who has exposed a number of research fraud cases, said: "My concern is that this is set up under the auspices of UUK. If you look at the record of the universities, they have consistently concealed research fraud and protected the crooks."

Sir Ian said the independence of the panel was secured by his personal integrity and the diverse sources of funding secured.

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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