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Research Labs Need Better Control

WITH two technical papers being published every minute, it's not surprising that a few should contain phony data, plagiarisms, and other evidence of misconduct. What's surprising is how slow many universities and research centers have been in dealing with such abuses. Now the US Department of Health and Human Services has published its long-awaited rules that mandate such procedures at institutions whose research it supports. It's a timely move.

Congress has spotlighted research hanky-panky in well publicized hearings this year. Pressure is building for legislation to impose standards on institutions that receive federal research funds. Among other suggested measures, would be a system of audits. Inspectors would swoop unannounced upon a laboratory to make sure scientists are keeping data notebooks in order and are following the research protocols outlined in their grant applications. It is even suggested that criminal sanctions be imposed if everything isn't on the up and up.

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The Food and Drug Administration already conducts such audits for drug testing labs. But it would be foolish to try to do this for basic science that is exploring the unknown. Scientists must be free to change their tactics as the pursuit of knowledge demands. They must be able to drop everything to study the supernova that has suddenly exploded in a nearby galaxy. To hold scientists to pre-specified procedures and record keeping enforced by inspectors who probably are unfamiliar with the research would chill creative science.

The best way to guard against misconduct is for research institutions themselves to assume this responsibility. They are most familiar with the work that goes on in their labs. Some universities and research centers already have formal procedures to enforce sound scientific practice. But those holding back should act quickly to establish such safeguards.

The Health department has published its new rules to spur such action. These mandate that research institutions receiving department funds have adequate procedures for enforcing sound scientific conduct. These must be fair, must protect privacy while investigations proceed, must protect whistle-blowers, and must follow due process. Institutions that fail to have satisfactory safeguards in place by year's end will no longer be eligible for department research funding.

This is a reasonable approach. It should provide assurance that scientists are making a good-faith effort to spend their research grants wisely and honestly without imposing crippling control.

The Health department funds the bulk of biomedical research in the US, and it is in biomedical work where most of the research misconduct has so far come to light. Thus the department's rules are likely to become a standard for all fields of science. Research institutions should bring their safeguards in line with that standard. If not, they run the risk that legislators may impose an unwanted system of laboratory police.