The Culture of Scientific Research: where next?

Guest blog by James Parry, Chief Executive of the UK Research Integrity Office (UKRIO). The Council and UKRIO are hosting a second follow-up workshop in November to discuss the findings from the Council’s report on The Culture of Scientific Research.

Reading the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ report on The Culture of Scientific Research in the UK was a mixed experience. That isn’t a criticism of the report, which was excellent; rather that I came away feeling both disappointed and strangely pleased.

Disappointed because the report described a remarkably high level of concern about the pressure that scientists experience to focus on and report positive results, and how this could lead to corners being cut. Scientists were also highly concerned about inadvertent perverse incentives to fabricate data, to alter, omit or manipulate data, or ‘cherry pick’ results.

I was pleased for two reasons. Firstly, because of the good news that, despite the issues that they were facing,  the report found UK scientists generally have high expectations of themselves and others, that they aspire to do rigorous, ethical work, and that they value the influence of standards for research practice. Secondly, because the report had provided evidence where there had previously been, for the most part, only anecdote.

A key function of my charity, the UK Research Integrity Office, is to provide an advisory service for people and organisations with questions about the conduct of research – a helpline if you will. We’ve been running this since we were set up in 2006, covering all disciplines, from medicine to the arts and humanities. These days we get about 100 formal requests for help a year, as well as many more informal ones, ranging from how to get things right to what you can do if things go wrong.

A recurring theme from many requests for our help has been that the culture of UK research can sometimes foster poor practices (and I say ‘research’ rather than ‘scientific research’, as the report highlighted issues which we’ve observed, in various forms, across all disciplines).

That isn’t to say that everything is broken. The UK has a justifiable reputation for conducting high quality and ethical studies, and for producing high calibre researchers. But that doesn’t mean that we can assume all is well and ignore this opportunity to address the apparent problems with the culture of UK research.

The ‘research culture’ that the report describes is created by a wide variety of different factors, from policy decisions by major organisations to the choices of individual researchers. Some of the factors that influence or directly affect this culture come from outside the research community – the global economic climate, for example. It’s understandable to feel a little daunted when we consider the challenge of improving such a culture.

This doesn’t mean that researchers are powerless to influence the current situation. As was pointed out at a Royal Society conference on The Future of Scholarly Scientific Communication earlier this year, it’s researchers who peer review grant applications, who edit journals and peer review papers. It is researchers who supervise PhD students, who manage colleagues and lead research projects. Researchers can and should have an influence on cultural change.

Of course, saying that researchers have influence doesn’t mean that they hold the balance of power. The report described how researchers felt high levels of competition and funding could both bring out the best in people but also create incentives for poor quality research practices. It is unrealistic to expect individual researchers to improve the negative aspects of targets and policies set by organisations.

I chaired the launch of this report and was encouraged by the reaction of the organisations who attended, and also by the attitudes of other bodies which have participated in subsequent discussions, such as the follow-up workshop for university research leaders and research support staff in July. Whenever I’ve talked with other organisations about the conclusions of the Nuffield Council’s report, pretty much everyone has replied that they find them depressingly familiar.

As with UKRIO, this report has confirmed what many have been hearing over the years, through personal experience, the anecdotes of others, and impressions gleaned from the work of their organisations. There are many good aspects of the UK’s research culture but also many problematic ones. Everyone agrees that these are real issues, hindering the ability of the research community to do the best research it can and to train and retain the best researchers that it can. There seems to be, for a change, consensus: Something Must Be Done.

Where that consensus begins to break down is over what must be done and, in particular, by whom. An understandable response is that these issues are a significant problem but it’s other organisations who should take the lead. I can relate to this view: as when individual researchers consider the issues facing us, it’s understandable even for organisations to feel daunted about the challenge of improving the culture of UK research.

That is the challenge facing the next phase of work on this project, centred around a workshop which will be hosted in November by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and UKRIO. At this workshop, a wider set of stakeholders has been invited to explore how they might work together to achieve a culture of research that supports good research practice and the production of high quality research.

Of course, there are many questions to be answered: what exactly it is that needs changing? How can it be changed and how can we measure whether that change has been effective? Who wants to be involved and, crucially, what funding can be made available for this? And what aspects of the current culture of research work well and should be left alone?

Finally, we must recognise that the UK research community contains a wealth of relevant expertise and valuable perspectives. This shouldn’t be an exercise conducted by an inwards-looking group. Nor should it ignore the experience of those who have been grappling with these issues for some time, such as social scientists researching cultural change and initiatives addressing inequality in research or higher education. The UK research community itself has a great deal to contribute and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of the workshop in November.

This blog post was also published on the UKRIO blog.

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