The Responsible Conduct of Research – At the Heart of Research Administration

One of the first publications I read when I became a research administrator was On Being A Scientist, a monograph freely available on the web written by the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine. It outlines the values that scientists uphold and explains why the conduct of science is inherently fraught with challenges, and why the structure of experimentation and verification of findings are needed. It presents a short but elegant discussion of ethical practices with regard to attribution, publication, errors, and misconduct. Since this publication, the book On Fact and Fraud by David Goodstein has built on this discussion by presenting a history of scientific research and where scientists have fallen short, leading to the development of rigorous standards known as the responsible conduct of research.

Each investigator who conducts research at an institution, or individual who supports the investigator’s work, takes part in ensuring the integrity of that research. The living and breathing principles of responsible conduct of research touch every domain of scientific research, including research administration.

The responsible conduct of research is a set of guidelines that affirms a universally known set of values that are shared by scientists, and a code of ethics that form the basis of the conduct of scientific research. RCR then outlines how this code of ethics and values is applied to working with data, animals, human subjects, conflicts of interest, publications, collaborations, peer review and mentorship. RCR training is required as part of all federally funded training grants.

Administrators face these issues directly; these modules developed by Boston College illustrate real life examples of ethical decisions that administrators face in order to ensure the integrity of a research study.

Whenever there are extraordinary headlines, where a scientist is being investigated for conduct that is inconsistent with the responsible conduct of research, the first question I ask myself is who knew what was going on, and why wasn’t the problem caught sooner?

The recent CBS 60 Minutes story about the investigator who allegedly claimed to have a test, in clinical trials, that could target a cancer treatment to a specific type of cancer (successfully), is heartbreaking. It’s unfortunate for the University at the center of the investigation because one subject’s family member has a tape recording of the conversation with the investigator. It’s a tragedy for the participants of the trial, and truly a case study in the responsible conduct of research – when it appears to be absent. You can read about the lawsuit here, and more about the story here.

The US Department of Health and Human Services ORI Web Resources page is a terrific site to visit for more information on this topic.

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