Is the culture of research encouraging good science?

A quick look at the back catalogue of the EuroScientist provides an illustration of the wide range of issues that affect the working lives of scientists today. Previous articles have covered research evaluation, the open access movement, career structures and responsible innovation, among many others. These issues are often dealt with individually—and rightly so given their complexity. But considered as a whole, they help to make up a culture. And scientists must work within this culture to do what they set out to do: usually, to produce high quality, ethical research that is of benefit to society.

There could be several ways of interpreting what is meant by ‘high quality, ethical research’. Guidance documents on research conduct and integrity that have been produced by most governments and science organisations across Europe, as well as pan-European organisations, do just that.

Among these documents, there is broad agreement that scientific research should observe certain principles including honesty, rigour, openness, fairness and duty of care. So it seems that we are fairly clear about what good, ethical science should look like. However, science does not operate in a vacuum free from influence, and the products of scientific research are affected by the choices and actions of scientists themselves, and the policies of research institutions, funders and regulators.

Each of these actors has developed ways of operating in order to deal with the realities of the system. For example, research institutions and research funders have limited resources and must prioritise and reward some research and researchers over others. And scientific publishers want to build a reputation for communicating high quality, interesting science in order to attract people to their services. Therefore, they also must have systems of evaluation in place.

We may be clear about what good science is, but it is no easy task to decide which science is better that others.

Nevertheless, systems of assessment have developed over time by necessity, and these dictate what research and which researchers receive support and encouragement. Given these high stakes, it would not be surprising if researchers altered their behaviour in order to give them the best chance of receiving this support and encouragement.

An important question to ask is, therefore, does the system operate in such a way that supports and encourages the production of what we broadly agree is ‘good science’?

This is a question being explored by a group of science organisations in the UK this year as part of a project on the culture of scientific research. These include the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the Royal Society, the Society of Biology, the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry. Through an online survey and a series of events, the group will be gathering views and evidence and promoting debate about the culture of research in the UK and its effect on ethical conduct in science and the quality, value and accessibility of research.

Various parts of the system are already under close scrutiny in the country. Universities are currently competing for a share of the Government’s research budget from 2015 onwards. And the chosen metrics of assessment—namely, research outputs, research impact and research environment—have been the subject of intense debate.

Across Europe, scientists are grappling with changes to academic publishing models and to legislation on areas relevant to their work, such as data sharing and animal research.

This UK project hopes to start a conversation and provide some evidence for future policy making about how these factors work together to influence the culture of science and whether it is likely to the desired outcome: high quality, ethical research.

The findings of the project will be published towards the end of 2014. Watch this space!

Catherine Joynson, programme Manager, Nuffield Council on Bioethics, London, UK.

Featured image credit: enotmaks via Fotolia

Go back to the Special Issue: Ethics, values and culture driving research

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