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.

Sport
premier leagueLive: All the latest news and scores from today's matches
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
News
Queen Elizabeth II sends the first royal tweet under her own name to declare the opening of the new Information Age Galleries at the Science Museum, South Kensington, London
media... and the BBC was there to document one of the worst reactions
News
politics
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
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

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker