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Climategate Fallout: Don’t Let Personal Views Cloud Scientific Integrity

Researchers should make it clear that they are going beyond their professional expertise when they make recommendations about the policy implications of their research, according to a new international agreement on research integrity.

The “Singapore Statement” was drawn up before the Second World Conference on Research Integrity, which took place in the island state in July, and was released on 22 September after consultation with the 350 delegates from 50 countries.

Its 14 universal research “responsibilities” include an injunction to “clearly distinguish professional comments from opinions based on personal views” when taking part in public discussions.

Nick Steneck, the director of the research ethics and integrity programme at the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research, who helped draft the guidelines, told Times Higher Education that some scientists “blur the lines between their scientific findings and their own positions on issues”.

He said many people felt that the “Climategate” scandal at the University of East Anglia had been an instance of such behaviour. “Although (scientists) may have strong feelings about what policies should be adopted based on their research findings, they are generally not policy experts,” he said.

Studies showed that scientists’ views were often influenced by their source of funding, Professor Steneck added. “When they carry their bias into the public sphere without clearly separating what they know as experts from what policies or actions they would like to recommend, they are violating this responsibility.”

However, he continued, researchers had a right to voice their personal concerns and were also obliged to “weight societal benefits against risks inherent in their work”.

Professor Steneck said previous progress on research integrity had been made only in response to “major and often embarrassing single cases of misconduct or reports of widespread questionable practices”. He said a fully fledged international agreement on research integrity would need a plan of action and regular evaluation of its impact, but he hoped the Singapore Statement would encourage governments, organisations and researchers to be proactive.

“By modestly paving the way, we hope that it will be easier for others to provide the leadership needed to promote research integrity on a global basis,” he said.

Times Higher Education, 23 September 2010

2nd World Conference on Research Integrity, 22 September 2010

To deserve public trust and support, researchers must set and maintain high standards for integrity in all aspects of their work. While major breaches of research integrity are thankfully not common, small and large problems do occur throughout the vast global research enterprise. The World Conferences on Research Integrity represent effort to provide guidance for promoting integrity in research throughout the world.

Building on the discussions begun at the first World Conference on Research Integrity (Lisbon 2007), this second gathering of experts from many different countries, disciplines and leadership roles has a proactive agenda. During the conference and post-conference workshops, participants will exchange information and views and then work together to develop guidelines and recommendations for promoting integrity in research on a global scale.

The main work of the conference will focus on developing recommendations for four key aspects of research integrity:
1. National and international structures for promoting integrity and responding to misconduct, 
2. Global codes of conduct and best practices for research, 
3. Common curricula for training students and researchers in best practices, and 
4. Uniform best practices for editors and publishers.

Participants will also have an opportunity to discuss and consider affirming a general “Singapore Statement on Research Integrity” as a starting point for identifying the fundamental values and principles that are common to research wherever it is undertaken. A draft Singapore Statement is currently available as an interactive web site to allow participants to begin the discussion of these fundamental values and principles in advance of the Conference itself.

The Second World Conference is aimed primarily at:

  • Leaders and key decision makers in research funding organisations (grant agencies and research councils)
  • Presidents, Directors and Provosts of research performing organisations (national research laboratories and universities)
  • Research faculty of research performing organisations
  • Research Publishers (scientific and technical journal and book editors and reviewers)
  • Researchers, Educators and Policy Experts
  • Those responsible for research integrity in Ministries and agencies specifically dealing with such matters