Dwindling funds for scientific research could encourage scientists to cheat, a report released Friday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine finds. Additionally, research misconduct is eating up precious funds even as they grow scarcer.
The report, “Fostering Integrity in Research,” said the funding crunch could hamper progress as scientists skip protocols and arrive at faulty conclusions. Research misconduct, some of which was not detected for years, has led to an increase in the “number and percentage of research articles that are retracted and growing concern about low rates of reproducibility … [raising] questions about how the research enterprise can better ensure that investments in research produce reliable knowledge,” Chairman Robert M. Nerem wrote in the report’s preface.
The U.S. devoted 2.81 percent of gross domestic product to research and development in 2012, with the private sector contributing two-thirds of that. The bulk of government research funding goes to defense.
The report cites numerous instances of research misconduct, including falsified grant applications.
Former University of Wisconsin researcher Mary Allen noticed a grant document failed to give an accurate description of some 2005 research, NPR reported.
"We weren't certain it was falsification. It could have been a mistake. The results sounded slightly better than they really were," Allen told NPR.
"I think one of the reasons she [the supervising professor] did it was she was under so much stress about getting funding for the students [so] she decided tweaking the data a little to make it look better would allow her to get a grant and therefore fund us."
The report emphasizes effective research is a process that includes planning, review of work by others, training the next generation of researchers and “effective stewardship of the scholarly record.” It is up to research institutions, the report said, to create an environment that supports integrity.
“Highly visible research misconduct cases continue to appear regularly around the world,” the report said.
“Concerns about scientific research that have emerged in the scientific and general media over the past several years reinforce the need to rethink and reconsider the strategies used to support integrity in research environments. … A growing body of evidence indicates that substantial percentages of published results in some fields are not reproducible.”
Part of the problem involves the growth of research itself and its globalization, along with pressure from the media to generate controversy and political debate.
The process is not broken, the report said, but it does face serious challenges to maintaining and fostering integrity.
Among the recommendations in the report is for researchers and research institutions to update their response to shoddy research, maintain the highest standards for conduct, make sure whistle-blowers are protected, establish an independent board to assess research environments, develop disciplinary procedures for violators and avoid duplication.
“Beyond questions of needless human suffering, the total scale of monetary costs from research misconduct and detrimental research practices may run from several hundred million dollars up to multiple billions of dollars per year in the United States alone,” the report said.