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Festival of science Monday, 11 September, 2000, 06:59 GMT 07:59 UK
Science needs its whistleblowers
BBC
By BBC Science's Toby Murcott

Just like other areas of life, science needs its whistleblowers - people who speak out when they discover other researchers are lying about their work.

That was the conclusion of one of the best-attended sessions at the British Association's Festival of Science.

If scientists could not trust each other to report the results of their work honestly, the delegates argued, then the whole basis of research would crumble.

But the theory that all research is and should be open to scrutiny is not always the case in practice.

One person who did blow the whistle and report what he saw as dishonest practices was Dr Andy Millar. He was the director of clinical research with a small but growing biotechnology company called British Biotech.

'Procedures don't work'

He was worried about some clinical drug trials the company was conducting - and he said so publicly.

"I finished up being fired," he told the festival. "There was a media war for six weeks when the company attempted and succeeded to a large extent in discrediting me and rubbishing my professional reputation - certainly to start with.

"The company sued me for breach of confidence and professional misconduct and in the end I won - if there is a winner in litigation."

His experience is not unique. Professor Brian Martin, of the University of Wollongong, Australia, has been researching scientific dissent for 20 years and has just completed The Whistleblowers Handbook.

"The experience we have just talking to so many whistleblowers is that they go to what you can call various official channels such as internal grievance procedures, or ombudsmen, or the courts, and it's very predictable that they just don't work"

Traditionally, anyone working for a business has been treated harshly for giving away what the organisation might see as company secrets.

Research guidelines

On the other hand, universities have been seen as places where genuinely independent academic research is pursued, with no loyalties except to the truth. But Professor Steven Rose, from the Open University, UK, is worried that this is no longer the case.

"I think there is a very real problem with university research in the way private companies have entered the universities, both with direct companies in the universities and with contracts to university researchers.

"The whole climate of what might be open and independent scientific research has now disappeared, so the old idea that universities are a place of independence has gone. Instead of which, one's got secrecy, one's got patents, one's' got contracts, one's got shareholders."

Many organisations now require researchers to follow specific guidelines. The UK's Medical Research Council, for example, has just published a Guide on the Principles of Good Research Practice.

The overwhelming feeling at the festival debate was that scientists should be free to talk openly about any fraud and misconduct they encountered.

The scientists who attended said they were deeply concerned that unless research was seen to be honest then an already sceptical public would lose faith in the value of their scientific endeavours.

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Prof Steven Rose
The public will not automatically trust scientists
See also:

12 Oct 99 | Sheffield 99
22 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
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