Plans for research watchdog praised, but it may lack teeth

Panel to oversee British biomedical science sparks controversy.

London

British biomedical science is to get its first watchdog. But even as details of the plan are being finalized, its architects have generated controversy by saying that they would consider accepting funding from the pharmaceutical industry.

Bright idea: Universities UK will discuss who funds a new body to oversee biomedical research. Credit: A. MACDONALD

Critics also fear that the proposed UK Panel for Health and Biomedical Research Integrity — which will operate under the umbrella of Universities UK (UUK) — may lack the teeth to police research properly.

Plans to establish the panel should be completed next month at a board meeting of the UUK, which represents most of Britain's higher-education institutes.

The idea of the panel has been spearheaded by Michael Farthing, principal of St George's Hospital Medical School in London. It has the approval of the government, and the Department of Health is currently helping to select the first panel members. The body will initially cover all biomedical research in universities and the National Health Service.

The need for an independent body to oversee investigations of misconduct, such as plagiarism and fraud, has been made clear by several science organizations in recent years.

But although the panel is likely to act as a safe haven for whistle-blowers, it will not itself investigate misconduct allegations. John Pritchard, a senior policy adviser at Sheffield Hallam University who is working on the plans on behalf of UUK, says the panel will instead advise institutions on how to run inquiries and nominate participants.

“I'd like to see a rigorous system of investigation and enforcement,” says Brian Gennery, president of the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine at the Royal Colleges of Physicians, one of the first UK organizations to promote the need for a research-integrity watchdog. “Then I would have much more confidence in this new body.”

Some organizations established elsewhere to oversee research integrity, such those in Denmark and the United States, have the power to run their own inquiries. Pritchard declined to comment on this issue until details of the plan have been approved by UUK, saying only that the whistle-blower facility alone would have a positive effect on subsequent investigations by employers.

The panel will also develop a non-mandatory code of conduct for biomedical researchers and raise awareness of misconduct through local events.

If UUK approval is secured next month, Pritchard expects panel members to be nominated in May and to start work by October. The panel would initially be established for a three-year period, pending a review of its performance.

Pritchard discussed the plans on 11 March at a London meeting of the Committee on Publication Ethics, an association of journal editors. When Pritchard mentioned that UUK was considering accepting funding from a range of sources — including the pharmaceutical industry — some delegates responded angrily.

“How will pharmaceutical sponsorship square with public confidence in this body?” asks Iona Heath, a London-based general practitioner and chairwoman of the British Medical Journal's ethics committee. She points out that the behaviour of the industry is currently under investigation by parliament following claims that some firms failed to publish sensitive research (see Nature 429, 793; 2004 10.1038/429793b). “This is not the right time to jump into bed with them,” says Heath.

Pritchard says no decision on funding has been taken, but adds that the pharmaceutical industry is a major funder of biomedical research and it would be a mistake not to engage with them. “They're a stakeholder,” he says. “It will be a missed opportunity if their responsibility is put aside.”

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Giles, J. Plans for research watchdog praised, but it may lack teeth. Nature 434, 263 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/434263a

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