The culture of scientific research in the UK

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

Ethics is concerned with what is good and what is bad for individuals and society. Bioethics is a branch of ethics studying the issues arising from the biological and medical sciences.

In 1991, the Nuffield Foundation established the Nuffield Council on Bioethics as an independent body that examines and reports on ethical issues in biology and medicine. Since 1994 it has been funded jointly by the Nuffield Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council. The Council has achieved an international reputation for advising policy makers and stimulating debate in bioethics.

The reports of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics cover multiple topics including public health, research in developing countries, animal research, biofuels, genetically modified crops in developing countries, neonatal medicine, emerging biotechnologies and so on. The main characteristic of these reports is their impartiality: they are based on exhaustive research work conducted under the supervision of independent renowned researchers. An unfortunate fact is that most of these reports are quite lengthy and use “high Academian” – a language not easily understood by people without research experience and scientific background.

At DNAdigest we pay close attention to research reports published by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Today we present the highlights from the report on the culture of scientific research in the UK published in December 2014.

Report on the culture of scientific research in the UK.

In 2013-2014, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics carried out a series of engagement activities with the aim of exploring the culture of research in the UK and its effect on ethical conduct in science and the quality of research. The report is based on the results of the online survey which had 970 respondents and 15 discussion events at universities around the UK.

According to this report, the three main motivations of scientists are: improving their own knowledge and understanding, making scientific discoveries for the benefit of society and satisfying their curiosity.

The respondents defined high quality science as being “rigorous, accurate, original, honest and transparent”. Collaboration, multidisciplinarity, openness and creativity were named as important for the production of high quality science. A significant number of respondents (especially younger people) believe that increased transparency and data sharing are facilitating the dissemination of results. This enables more efficient and cost effective research and allows greater scrutiny of research findings.

However, in some cases, the culture of research in higher education institutions does not support or encourage these goals or activities (and sometimes works the opposite way). For example, high levels of competition and lack of funding are reported to be the main reasons for the loss of creativity in science, less collaboration and poor research practices.

Poor research practices include data fraud, poor experimental design, corner-cutting in research methods, inadequate replication of research, ‘cherry pick-ing’ results, inappropriately slicing up data to create several papers, authorship issues, plagiarism, over-claiming the significance of work in grant proposals and papers, and carrying out poor quality peer review. In addition, the way researchers (and research projects) are assessed is not ideal and can sometimes be misused.

You can read the full report or its short summary, or order a printed copy.

Based on this report, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics came up with a list of suggestions for action for funding bodies, research institutions, publishers and editors, professional bodies and individual researchers.

Although there is still a long way to go, we witness with enthusiasm the current paradigm shift towards research transparency and integrity. For example, starting from 01 May 2015, most funding agencies in the UK require that raw research data is submitted to repositories.

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