Science and technology policy

Speech by Mr. Angel Gurría at the First World Conference on Research Integrity


Remarks by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General

Lisbon, Portugal - Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

17 September 2007
I am pleased to be participating in this first World Conference on Research Integrity. I salute the European Science Foundation and the United States Office of Research Integrity for their initiative to make this unique event happen;  and I congratulate the Portuguese Presidency of the European Union, especially Minister Jose-Mariano Gago, for the vision, and the courage, to host a conference on this difficult and sensitive – but very important – subject.

The OECD is contributing to this conference with a pioneering report on responsible research in which many of the experts here at the conference have collaborated. The report is the product of a formal international consultation, the first ever held on this topic, covering national policies of prevention and enforcement, and the challenge of international co-operation in combating misconduct. 

I would like to begin my remarks by highlighting how important the topic of research integrity is for the OECD. I will do so by making a bridge from research to economic growth. The crucial link between the two is, of course, innovation. Innovation has become more and more important for economic growth over the past decades. Globalisation, increased competition and access to new ideas and technologies are at the root of this development. Innovation has also become a centrepiece of corporate strategies. And for us at the OECD, innovation is one of our core concerns; in fact, this year we have launched a multi-year effort to deepen our knowledge about innovation, what works and how, for the benefit of our Members.
It is estimated that nearly half the US GDP is linked to intellectual property. The EU has set a target to increase R&D spending to 3% of GDP by 2010 and China is now perhaps the second leading investor in R&D in the world. And with the expansion of research and development, many policymakers see the association between universities and corporations as the space where the future lies. Indeed, the borders between basic research and applied research are increasingly blurred.

While governments around the world have understood the importance of fostering R&D and investing in intellectual capital, the conditions under which research takes place and, in particular, how to ensure integrity and responsibility in research, have received much less attention. Thus the importance of addressing this, making sure that the innovation system works well and avoiding the high cost of misconduct in research.

OECD’s Global Science Forum has dealt with this issue and, actually, the report I am presenting to you today is the product of the Forum’s work. It aims to better understand, prevent, uncover, investigate and punish acts of dishonesty by researchers. In other words, it addresses precisely the theme of this event: how to foster responsible research. It's insights are valuable as the forum brings together senior science policy officials from all over the world.

I would now like to turn to the three key issues addressed in the report: "Who are the victims of misconduct in research?", "Who is interested in promoting research integrity?", and "What can we do to prevent misconduct in research?"

On the first question, the scientific community itself is the first and most directly affected victim.  Falsified measurements or calculations may lead other scientists down wasteful, unproductive, and time-consuming paths. This can cause great damage to science, and to its public image.

Some say that science is inherently self-correcting. Sooner or later, fraudulent results  - or simple errors – would be eliminated because other researchers cannot reproduce them independently. To some extent, this is true, and the prospect of being exposed one day undoubtedly discourages some of the potential cheaters.  But today's research is so complex and vast, that wrong or inexplicable results can remain in the scientific records because no one has the time or the motivation to verify them. 

Scientists, however, are not the only ones who suffer from their colleagues’ wrongdoing. Other victims include universities and institutes that host and support scientific work, commercial companies (which pay for a significant amount of basic research), scientific publishers, the general public, and  government agencies that plan, prioritise, fund, evaluate and regulate publicly-financed research.
In order to design policy solutions, we need to ask a second question: who is interested in promoting research integrity?

To begin with, scientists themselves have a strong interest to preserve the respect they have earned in society. Opinion polls regularly show scientists among the top three or four trusted professions. No researcher wishes to jeopardise this achievement.

Governments also have great interest and responsibility in this matter.  Governments fund research because of the benefits that it brings to society.  Responsible officials must do their best to ensure that each nation is well served by research that is financed using public funds.

Consider some of the greatest challenges that our countries currently face: climate change, environmental degradation, infectious diseases, depletion of energy resources, global terrorism, poverty. Most of the potential solutions to these problems have major scientific dimensions.

We rely on scientists to better understand these challenges, and to devise practical solutions; thus, the importance of research integrity cannot be overestimated. Society cannot tolerate even the possibility of deliberate errors in the testing of new drugs, in the modelling of sensitive ecosystems, in the development of communications software, and in other critical areas that are under governments’ responsibility.
This takes us to the third question: What can we do to prevent misconduct and stop black sheep in research?

The OECD report points out that each act of misconduct is a case of moral failure, where an individual chooses to behave badly.  What pushes these individuals to violate the norms of correct scientific behaviour ? Such acts cannot be condoned or excused. But we do need to understand better what drives scientists to break the rules. Only then will we be able to prevent transgression.
A look at recent trends in the world of science may give us some clues.

The enormous expansion of the scientific enterprise during the last fifty years has changed the nature of careers in research, and not always for the better.  Science is no longer the esoteric pastime of a small, idealistic fraternity of truth-seekers. Today, OECD countries count close to four million researchers and OECD graduate schools award some 160,000 doctorates each year. 

The research environment is notoriously competitive, with numerous temptations for the weak and unsuspecting. Craving for fame and vanity are unfortunately also among the reasons that lead some scientists to fabricate or manipulate results.
OECD governments underwrite research generously, but the struggle for public funds is fierce.  Many scientists feel intense pressure to produce definitive, positive results and to accumulate large numbers of publications in the most prestigious journals.  And cheating has become easier: there are many software packages at hand which enable the manipulation of images and data.

In some fields of applied research, large sums of money are at stake.  Financial considerations can also warp the judgement of susceptible individuals when investigating the side-effects of a proposed new drug, or the properties of a new high-tech material.

In too many universities and research institutions, questions of research integrity are not openly discussed, nor are they included in the curriculum.  People still seem to think that students and junior researchers will adopt ethical research practices instinctively or learn from senior colleagues. But this is no longer true.

In the light of these realities and challenges, what can be done ?  To limit misconduct in research, we propose a range of remedies. As in other areas where society has to deal with criminality, there are two basic approaches that can be followed: prevention and enforcement. The first focuses on the systemic factors that can push individual researchers over the brink while the second aims to exclude guilty individuals from the scientific community.
Let me give you just a few examples of policy measures: 

  • Countries should adopt clear rules and codes of conduct and establish a system that can deal with allegations of misconduct .
  • Hiring and promotions should be based on the quality of work rather than the quantity of publications.
  • Rationalising and simplifying grant application and award procedures would also help.
  • And the results of each investigation of misconduct should be disseminated in the scientific community, as a deterrent to similar behaviour.  

Getting the system right is not easy. Close supervision is good but researchers should not be exposed to unfair suspicion, intrusive scrutiny, or unnecessary bureaucracy either. Science will only thrive if creative freedom and intellectual independence are respected.

By way of conclusion, I would like to say that misconduct in research unfortunately is a fact of life.  We should not exaggerate the danger, but we should not sweep it under the rug either. Scientific integrity needs to be discussed frankly and openly. This conference is a sign that such an approach is gaining ground and I look forward to open and frank discussions.