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.

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