The bad science scandal: how fact-fabrication is damaging UK's global name for research

After a string of high-profile cases, a new agreement between scientists and the people who fund them aims to usher in a new era of 'research purity'

Britain’s leading science institutions will be told on Monday that they will be stripped of many millions of pounds in research grants if they employ rogue researchers who fake the results of experiments, The Independent has learnt.

The clampdown comes as retractions of scientific claims by medical journals are on course to top 500 for the first time in 2013 - having been just 20 a year in the late 1990s, when Andrew Wakefield notoriously claimed that the MMR vaccine caused autism in children. In April, the UK’s first researcher was jailed for falsifying data over a prolonged period.

The Government is concerned that Britain’s prized second place in global research behind the US will be at threatened if more fact-fabricators are exposed. It knows that hundreds of thousands of jobs could easily go to foreign rivals if British laboratories do not keep coming up with new product ideas, to be made by major multinational companies in UK factories.

All of the country’s 133 universites and colleges of higher education are being forced to sign a new Concordat for Research Integrity - having been warned by major fund providers that those who do not will be refused access to more than £10 billion in research grants funded each year by British taxpayers - and as much again from the private sector.

A spokesman for Universities UK, which chaired negotations with the grant providers, said: “From next year, universities in the UK will have to prove compliance with the research integrity concordat in order to receive research grant. They are doing this to help demonstrate to government, business, international partners and the wider public that they can continue to have confidence in the research.”

Retractions of medical claims alone in 2013 - logged by the Retraction Watch blog - are certain to be more than 400, and could easily top 500. Some result from genuine mistakes, several plagiarise other scientists’ work, breakthroughs that haven’t been checked. But as many as one in 10 of them contain lies.

Retraction Watch last week reported that the pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline is believed to have fired Jingwu Zang, a former senior vice president and head of R&D at its Shanghai facility, after claims he made in the journal Nature Medicine were, as a company spokeswoman admitted, “misrepresented”.

At the private meeting in London tomorrow, the top eight UK funding bodies will reveal what evidence they will require university professors to produce to guarantee that their research is untainted by unreliable researchers.

The grant allocators believe it will take at least three years to achieve “research purity”. They will lay down a set of rules that will decide how the ethics of British scientists can be policed. The culture change demanded is immense, and raises the prospect of Britain’s university professors suddently being exposed to intense public scrutiny.

Under the new rules, universities will no longer be able to simply fire researchers who corrupt data and then ask for more money. Instead, they will have to prove their team selection and management skills in advance. They will also have to ensure that they employ staff not just for their science knowledge, but whom they can trust implicitly.

More importantly, they will have to demonstrate annually that each team member’s graphs and spreadsheets are precisely correct.

Having seen Britain’s first researcher jailed in April for falsifying data that went unchecked and undetected for 10 years, even the world-beating research institutes of Oxford and Cambridge will be compelled to make the same rigorous checks as local colleges, to get the cash that will keep them in business.

Sentencing 47-year-old Steven Eaton to three months in prison for faking research data on experimental anti-cancer drugs, Edinburgh Sheriff Michael O’Grady expressed his shock at his betrayal of trust in the medical profession. “I feel that my sentencing powers in this are wholly inadequate,” he told Eaton. “You failed to test the drugs properly. You could have caused cancer patients unquestionable harm.”

In a personal message to all professors, Universities and Science Minister David Willetts warned them that grant providers will now expect to be able to monitor what they do. The concordat, he wrote, “establishes, for the first time, a mechanism for major stakeholders to come together to review progress towards strengthening research integrity”.

Wonderful past achievements will count for little if they get things very badly wrong in the future, he added. “We must not be complacent. We must work together and be sure that we can show – both to the public and to our international partners and competitors – how the highest possible standards of integrity are maintained.

“We must be confident that the research community has the tools to deal with any alleged misconduct by researchers in a transparent, robust and fair manner.”

The grant providers, however, had already dealt a heavier blow. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) said it had “consulted the higher education sector on our proposal to make compliance with the concordat a condition of grant for institutions eligible to receive our research funding”.

Universities UK confirmed that all of the universities and higher education colleges it represents have already accepted the terms of the concordat. “Implementation of the concordat is set to become a condition within the HEFCE Financial Memorandum,” a spokesman said. “This is of critical importance, as the FM is the statement of responsibilities that universities agree to in return for public funding. A consultation exercise was carried out in early 2013, and the second stage is currently underway. The FM will be in place for the beginning of academic year 2013-14.”

The London meeting has been called to devise a system of evidential-based checks on what is happening in research units. Those checks, however, are already being put in place. Research Councils UK has embedded adoption of the concordat within its existing assurance and reporting processes. Each year, a sample of universities in receipt of its funds “will be asked to provide evidence of how the concordat has been implemented”.

The concordat’s stated aims - including “maintaining the highest standards of rigour and integrity in all aspects of research” and “supporting a research environment that is underpinned by a culture of integrity and based on good governance, best practice and support for the development of researchers” – seem easy to agree to. But achieving “transparent, robust and fair processes to deal with allegations of research misconduct should they arise” will prove difficult.

The UK’s position against research rivals is now precarious, a document prepared by Research Councils UK is warning Whitehall’s economic advisors. Whilst investment in cutting edge R&D may seem extravagant during a recession, other countries are backing their belief that it is vital to create dynamic new industries to eventually lead an economic recovery with big spurts in research funding.

“Proposed cuts in research funding would lead to a substantial fall in the UK’s competitive position,” it says, “as most other developed countries are responding to difficult economic times by increasing rather than decreasing their investment in science. The United States intends to double its scientific research budget between 2006 and 2016. Australia, Canada, China, France and Germany also intend to increase spending significantly.”

The UK currently ranks ninth among OECD countries in terms of public support for higher education in the form of grants to universities and Research Councils for research. This compares with a position of sixteenth in 1996. But the latest OECD figures show that the United States invests 3.1 per cent of GDP and the UK just 1.3 per cent, below the OECD average of 1.5 per cent.

But the most significant voice at the taskforce table tomorrow will be that of the Wellcome Trust, whose research grants are funded by a £14.5 billion investment portfolio. Wellcome’s presence in a working group tasked with rigorously enforcing open medical research standards in Britain is a chilling reminder of what could happen if UK research standards, traditionally among the highest in the world, were to collapse. “We believe passionately that breakthroughs emerge when the most talented researchers are given the resources and freedom they need to pursue their goals,” says Wellcome. But those breakthroughs don’t have to be funded, and then made, in Britain.

Whilst the 76-year-old trust is a London-based charity and Britain’s largest provider of non-governmental funding for scientific research, it is also second only in funding global medical research to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Grant-funding charities like Wellcome take a dispassionately global view in their search for research excellence. And their fear is that their money may be spent on giving advice to ordinary doctors worldwide, who read and believe the scientific journals, which researchers know is wrong.

Their attempts to stop elaborately-faked data being published in the first place are driven by the fact that invariably take years for journals to retract bogus studies -- in a few paragraphs, that are usually missed by hard-working GPs -- during which time millions of seriously-ill people are treated in ways that make their conditions worse. It took 12 years for the General Medical Council to finally strike off Andrew Wakesfield, in 2010. But his claims about MMR jabs were still so potent in the minds of parents that they resulted in an epidemic of measles in Britain in the past year.

In 1995, Wellcome had divested itself of any interest in pharmaceuticals by selling all remaining stock to Glaxo Plc, its then great British rival. In 2000, the Wellcome name disappeared from the drug business altogether when GlaxoWellcome merged with SmithKline Beecham, to form GlaxoSmithKline Plc.

At tomorrow’s London meeting, the ex-drugs giant Wellcome will be among those judging the quality of research used by the drugs companies it left behind.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
people
Sport
SPORT
News
people
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Biggins as Mrs Smee in Peter Pan
theatreHow do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick