Why we think health researchers should be made publicly accountable

June 29, 2001

The Harold Shipman inquiry and other high-profile cases have brought proposals for changes to make medical professionals more accountable to the government and the public. Such cases have called into question the degree to which healthcare professionals can be trusted.

Most would agree that extending corporate governance to include the quality of clinical care and seeking more public involvement in the National Health Service are crucial steps in re-establishing trust in the delivery of healthcare. But should we not expect similar responsibilities from those performing health research?

Health researchers can make dramatic impacts. The recent debate about the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine began with a scientific paper that suggested an association between the vaccine and autism. This resulted in anxiety among parents and a consequent fall in immunisation. Since then, public debate has generated more uncertainty about the vaccine's safety.

Such research can lead to confusion and anxiety and guilt. The situation is exacerbated by the way that scientists may be pushed to exaggerate their work's implications because their careers are partly dependent on the impact of their publications. Many scientists view the media as part of the research process: as an ally to be enrolled in the never-ending struggle to secure future funding and institutional recognition.

It is time researchers accepted that the boundaries between scientific and social and political spheres are collapsing - scientists have increasing responsibilities that go well beyond their disciplinary boundaries. Each time these responsibilities are avoided, as in the Alder Hey Children's Hospital body-parts scandal, public support for research is further undermined.

If people grow suspicious of health research, they will increasingly withhold their support and decline participation in studies that could benefit all. There are enough impediments to conducting worthwhile and much-needed research without scientists themselves adding difficulties.

Simon Carter and Nick Black, Department of public health and policy, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine University of London

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