MPs want new watchdog to root out research misconduct

A national watchdog that has the power to punish British universities for failing to tackle research misconduct is needed to ensure that sloppy practices and outright fraud are caught and dealt with fast, MPs say. The Guardian reports.

The new body would rule on whether universities have properly investigated allegations of malpractice and have the authority to recommend research funds be withdrawn or even reclaimed when it finds that inquiries into alleged wrongdoing have fallen short.

While serious research fraud is thought to be rare in British universities, a quarter of institutions fail to report cases of potential malpractice, according a survey by the Commons science and technology committee which urged ministers to set up the new watchdog in a report on research integrity published Wednesday.

“This has to be taken far more seriously,” said Norman Lamb, chair of the committee. “Institutions with track records have been destroyed by scandals and crises. The danger is that something comes along out of the blue that completely undermines public trust.”

One recent case of misconduct centred on Paolo Macchiarini, a visiting professor at the prestigious Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, who was hailed as a pioneer in regenerative medicine for transplanting the world’s first synthetic windpipes into patients between 2011 and 2013. But he was later dismissed for scientific and clinical misconduct when it emerged he had exaggerated the success of the work. All but one of his patients have since died. The scandal led to a flurry of resignations, including that of Anders Hamsten, the institute’s vice chancellor.

Twenty universities told the MPs that they had not investigated any cases of misconduct since they signed the UK’s research integrity concordat year ago. But Lamb said that was troubling given the pressure researchers are under to cut corners and publish what appear to be impressive results. “At the very least it raises concerns when universities report zero investigations year after year, particularly when they do a lot of research. It’s not really credible to imagine nothing ever goes wrong,” he said.

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