Watchdog needed to assure integrity of UK research

The UK needs an independent regulator to oversee research integrity, a committee of MPs has concluded.

July 29, 2011

The Commons Science and Technology Committee makes the recommendation in its report on Peer Review in Scientific Publications, published yesterday.

The committee describes the current state of oversight of research integrity in the UK as “highly unsatisfactory”.

It accepts the view of Wellcome Trust director Sir Mark Walport, expounded during an evidence session, that primary responsibility for policing research integrity lies with researchers’ employers.

But the MPs argue that an external regulator is needed to “oversee the employer and make sure that they are doing the right thing”.

They say such a body would operate in a similar way to the Health and Safety Executive, which ensures that employers enforce health and safety laws.

“We recommend that the government sets out proposals on the scope and powers of such a regulator and consults with the research community and other relevant parties to develop them,” the report says.

It also calls on research institutions to appoint a specific member of staff to lead on research integrity, and to always publish the findings of any investigations into misconduct.

It urges funders to “revisit” their decision not to establish an independent advisory body to which research organisations and individuals could turn for advice on how to handle misconduct allegations. Such a move was recommended last year by the UK Research Integrity Futures Working Group, convened by Research Councils UK and Universities UK and chaired by former Keele University vice-chancellor Dame Janet Finch.

The MPs are also incredulous that no research council has ever withdrawn funding from a researcher on the grounds of fraud – particularly in the light of a 2002 survey by the National Institutes of Health in which around a third of US researchers admitted to having engaged in misconduct in the previous three years.

“We would have expected a similar proportion of researchers to be engaged in these misbehaviours in the UK,” they say. “We recommend that…funders of research reassess the robustness of their procedures for dealing with allegations of research fraud or misconduct, to ensure that they are not falling through the cracks”.

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