I took part in Evidence Week in Parliament recently and was reminded of a statistic published in the Lancet in 2009 that as much as 85 per cent of research globally is wasted.
It’s a shocking statistic – thousands of volunteers’ time wasted, thousands of hours of researchers’ work wasted, billions of pounds wasted and an opportunity lost to carry out other valuable research instead.
It’s nine years since that figure was published, pointing to researchers not asking the correct questions, mismanaged studies and, crucially, researchers not publishing their work. Raising that study at the Evidence Week roundtable discussion at which we both spoke, Elaine Williams, Research Director at the NIHR Evaluation, Trials and Studies Co-ordination Centre, asked whether enough had changed since.
It’s certain we’ve seen change. The very fact Evidence Week happened, and that research waste was being discussed in a room of parliamentarians and key figures from the research sector shows the issue is being taken seriously.
Elaine talked about NIHR’s role in ensuring research transparency, and particularly how the health researchers it funds are expected to disseminate their findings, even if studies do not deliver the results that were expected.
I talked about the crucial role that the Health Research Authority has to play. Part of our work is ensuring that information about research projects is made publicly available before they start. It’s crucial everyone knows what research is going on because it means researchers interested in that area can avoid duplicating the efforts of others – and avoid recruiting patients to unnecessary research. But it’s also really important because if we know what research is going on, we know to look out for the findings sometime in the future – and to ask demanding questions if they do not appear.
The panel also discussed recent work by the Science Media Centre around how medical advances are presented to the media. Everyone loves to read about the latest scientific breakthrough over their cornflakes, but although there’s usually some great research triggering these stories, it’s often really difficult to work out how this affects you or me. Is this breakthrough an important step forward in understanding that will take years to develop, or is it about to be offered in the NHS?
The Science Media Centre has recommended clearer labelling of scientific and medical developments to help journalists (and in turn the public) better understand the evidence behind a development. This is important. Only around one third (37 per cent) of the public said they trusted evidence derived from medical research, and two thirds thought that clinical trial research funded by pharmaceutical companies is often biased to produce a positive outcome.
It is clear there’s more to be done. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee this week published the first report of its inquiry into research integrity. It focused on how universities avoid error, questionable practices and fraud, as well as the need to publish ‘negative’ research findings, especially in the field of medicine.
We welcome the Committee’s report, and the time it has committed to study a crucial aspect of research. The vast benefits of health and social care research depend upon those people who volunteer to take part in studies. A lack of research integrity betrays the dedication of those volunteers, and risks undermining well conducted research. We will consider the report as our transparency work develops, and look forward to the second report, focusing on clinical trials, due to be published in the autumn.
In the meantime, there's more about our commitment to research transparency here.