Petit Institute founding director Bob Nerem co-authors proposal in Nature to create new national policy entity
A group of leaders in the U.S. research community, including Bob Nerem from the Georgia Institute of Technology, are calling for creation of a new national board for research integrity in an opinion piece published today in the journal Nature.
“We want to build a culture of quality and integrity, and it will require conversations across the entire ecosystem of research,” says Nerem, founding director of the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience, summing up the intention of the authors, who argue, “on a day-to-day basis, the conventions that research groups have for documenting methods and results, conducting analyses and allocating credit are often less than optimal. At worst, they can encourage dishonesty and scandal.”
Then they offer up a worst-case scenario as an example: In April 2017, Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA, and its health-care network agreed to pay $10 million to settle fraud allegations in stem-cell research funding, and the hospital (and Harvard Medical School) recommended the retraction of 31 papers from a former lab director. “Resources that might have brought better medical care have been squandered,” the authors write.
So the authors propose creation of a research policy board (RPB), which would be a “central resource to which institutional leaders and other members of the scientific enterprise could turn for assistance in creating and sustaining cultures for reliable and efficient research. That would include addressing issues related to authorship, raising the quality of peer review, educating researchers on responsible conduct and robust analysis, streamlining research administration and assessing research environment.”
The nation’s 200-plus research universities have long partnered with federal funding agencies, but there is no formal entity through which these partners actually meet to address issues when they do arise. The RPB would serve that purpose and focus on a number of priorities the authors outline:
• Foster consistency and exchange of information across funders, scientists and administrators.
• Provide resources to assess research environments and boost integrity.
• Benchmark common practices across institutions and establish best practices.
• Develop guidelines and standards for misconduct investigations and formal disputes.
• Establish lists of vetted experts for external investigations.
Such a national board isn’t a new idea in this country – the concept has been discussed, without much traction, for decades. Other countries already are pursuing similar initiatives and if the U.S. “does not follow suit,” the authors write, “it could see its international scientific leadership start to fade.”
And time is of the essence.
“Either we as a scientific research community can put in place something that will actually foster a culture of research integrity, or ultimately it will be Congress that steps in and acts unilaterally, and that would not be in the best interests of the research enterprise,” says Nerem, who chaired the Committee on Responsible Science for the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), which produced a book-length report, Fostering Integrity in Research, in 2017.
Nerem, professor emeritus at the Petit Institute, is the senior author among five who wrote the piece that appears in Nature’s comment section. The other authors are C.K. Gunsulus, director of the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; Marcia McNutt, president of the U.S. Academy of Sciences; Brian C. Martinson, who studies research integrity and behavioral change at the HealthPartners Institute in Bloomington, Minnesota; and Larry R. Faulkner, president emeritus of the University of Texas at Austin.
The first step, they say, will be a plenary session at the U.S. Academy of Science annual meeting in April, which will present a first opportunity for national leaders to discuss the role of a national RPB. The authors also propose a two-day meeting of stakeholders in late 2019 to determine what sort of formal entity is needed, what it should do, what kind of support it would need, and under what authorization it should operate.
“There are many perverse incentives in science, and few organized forces to counter them,” the authors write in their conclusion. “A research policy board, first recommended more than 25 years ago, will benefit both science and scientists. We must act to create it now.”
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