Research in the UK: A week of contrasts

Last Monday I started the week admiring the beautiful and impressive 900 year old Westminster Hall, with its medieval timber roof, at the Palace of Westminster in London, UK.Westminster Hall in the early 19th century

I was there not as a tourist, but to attend the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Medical Research Summer Reception, entitled, A Healthy Future for UK Medical Research. At the event, a report on ‘Medical research: What’s it worth?’ was presented which finds that every pound invested in cancer research returns 40 pence to the UK each year, and I was there as a representative of BMC Medicine where the original research was published. The report can be downloaded here and further discussion of its implications can be found here and on BioMed Central’s blog. Listening to David Willetts and  John Tooke talking of the health of UK research in such salubrious surroundings left the impression that all was well with research in the UK.

Of the research presented at the reception, I was particularly impressed by the Medical Research Council funded study, ‘Peek: A smarter way to diagnose eye disease’, where a smartphone was used to help diagnose eye disease in Kenya and the study, ‘Sparks, Preventing brain injury in newborn babies’ where hypothermia was used to prevent brain damage in newborn babies starved of oxygen. All the research presented at the event can be seen here.

In contrast, on Friday I finished the week by attending one of a series of events hosted by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the purpose of which is to :

“….encourage debate about how the different features of the UK research environment are affecting, both positively and negatively, the work and behaviour of scientists at all stages of their career.”

There are several of these discussion events planned by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics throughout the year at different locations all over the country. Friday’s event was held in London at University College London, in the slightly less salubrious Medical Sciences and Anatomy Building, and was attended by people from a variety of fields (scientists, editors , publishers, lay public), across all disciplines and included researchers at all stages of their careers. The panel, chaired by Johnathan Montgomery,  was  Geraint Rees, Philip Campbell, and Giovanna Tinetti. Ninety minutes were packed with comments and questions ranging from “Is there an alternative to impact factors?” to “How do we ensure the integrity of research?”

Of particular interest to me as an editor was the discussion on the pressures young scientists are put under to produce results and publish, and whether competition is a good thing. It is not uncommon for authors to opine that, “I have to publish before I can get my PhD,” “I will lose my job if I don’t publish by the end of the year,” “I need to submit to a journal with a high impact factor.”  In some cases it is pressures like these that may motivate unethical behaviour such as data fabrication and duplicate publication and of course, these pressures affect researchers all over the world, not just the UK.

The time burden of peer review was another memorable topic. The amount of reviewing that researchers are requested to do is increasing and peer review is often done in the peer reviewer’s own time. How might that affect the quality of peer review reports? How do we acknowledge peer reviewers for their efforts?

There’s no doubt that researchers in the UK and the rest of the world face many complex and inter-related issues that still need to be addressed.

If Monday left the impression that all’s well with medical research in the UK, Friday left me impressed by what UK researchers achieve in light of the seemingly insurmountable issues they have to deal with over and about their main business of research.

 

 

The Nuffield Council debates will be written up and presented to policy makers later in the year. (Contact Catherine Joynson, Programme Manager: cjoynson@nuffieldbioethics.org for more information about upcoming events).

 

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