Australian medical research has a ‘genuine and substantial’ problem with fraud that can only be stamped out with strict regulation of the sector, Professor Warwick Anderson has warned.
In a provocative monograph, the former NHMRC head argues that, because medical research has no regulator, “anyone can call themselves a researcher”, with dire ethical and scientific consequences .
Beyond that, the lack of an AHPRA-style body means there are no processes to affirm a researcher has reached any agreed level of expertise, proficiency and reliability, nor any formal avenues to ban the unscrupulous or incompetent.
“Other groups whose jobs involve highly technical knowledge and particular responsibilities are usually self-organised as a profession, with training and competency requirements and recognition through some form of accreditation,” he writes.
“They have formal processes to withdraw recognition and accreditation when their members act in ways that harm their customers or patients and the reputation of the profession itself.”
“Why should medical research be different? Surely medical research is as important as the work of lawyers, plumbers, electricians, doctors, nurses, dentists, physiotherapists and vets?”
The publication of Professor Anderson’s book, Trust in Medical Research (link here), follows a string of scandals affecting some of the biggest names in Australia’s medical research sector across several of its top institutions.
In August, QIMR Berghofer apologised after an independent probe upheld allegations of serious research misconduct involving its immunology in cancer laboratory head Professor Mark Smith.
This included findings that he had fabricated data in support of grant applications and clinical trials, and breached codes relating to responsible research conduct and use of animals in studies.
Professor Smyth, who had previously spent 13 years working at Peter Mac, was Australia’s most highly cited research in immunology at the time he was stood down in October 2020.
And last year, the British Journal of Sports Medicine retracted 10 articles authored by Melbourne concussion researcher Associate Professor Paul McRory and placed expressions of concern on 38 more, citing proven plagiarism.
Professor Anderson, an emeritus professor at Monash University and NHMRC CEO from 2006 to 2013, stressed Australian medical science had much to be proud of, citing the local work to develop rotavirus and HPV vaccines, as well as the development of cochlear implants, as key achievements.
In addition, he acknowledged his ideas may create additional challenges for medical researchers, admitting to offering them up with “some trepidation”.
However, it was also clear that trust had been eroded in recent years, he said.
“I understand this concern, but the bigger risk in the medium to long term is to not address the problems ourselves,” he wrote.
“After all, if scientific training teaches us anything, it is how to critically examine everything – methodology, results, applications for funding, proposed publications, PhD theses, seminars and conference presentations – and then to find solutions.”
He added: “Parts of the medical research system are creaking and buckling under pressure.”
“They are becoming less fully fit for purpose, less suited to the contemporary demands of science and less receptive to the hopes of new generations of scientists. Changes are needed.”