Reprint 1987: Research Administration in a Time of Change

by SRA International on Thursday, August 31, 2017

In a series of articles, we will present the newest in research administration from the Journal of Research Administration. To read the full JRA, please see here

Edward N. Brandt

Change. It is a very small word...only six letters...and yet, the meanings connoted arouse great emotions, including fear, anxiety, and occasionally great enthusiasm. Like all people, those of us involved in biomedical research are full of paradoxes. We deal in change virtually every day. New discoveries, new insights into biological processes, and scientific advances are the life blood of our activities. Yet, change that is not under our control is strongly resisted. Unfortunately, there is a lot of that.

Let me just review a few of the changes going on in the world around us.

First, the last 5 years [1981-1986] have seen massive increases in funding for biomedical research. Indeed, the NIH budget alone has risen over 50% in the past 5 years. That amounts to nearly $2.5 billion more funds available than in 1981. Yet, at the same time, we have seen competition for those funds also increase dramatically. In fact, at a higher rate. As a consequence, the percentage of submitted proposals deemed to be of scientific merit that are funded drops each year and is now at about 25%. This competition forces investigators to spend a great deal more time developing proposals and creates increased pressures to produce quickly.

Second, the rapidity of advances in scientific knowledge and understanding leads to more rapid obsolescence of equipment, facilities, people, and knowledge. Such changes lead to a greater need for some flexible funding to maintain up-to-date scientific equipment and facilities as well as the ability to send faculty on sabbaticals for retooling of their skills.

Third, scientific problems are becoming more complex...demanding more and more interdisciplinary efforts. Yet, most of our institutional reward systems, including promotions, tenure and pay increases, are based upon individual efforts, not team efforts. Since most of our people have grown up in such reward systems, they have little or no experience in interdisciplinary research and, therefore, are reluctant to engage in it. Yet, that is where the action is.

Fourth, various components of our society are demanding greater accountability via regulation of what we do. Hence, all of us are involved in adapting to new regulations with respect to human experimentation, legal efforts to restrict animal experimentation, more rigidity in personnel rules, and similar steps. These efforts, of course, detract from the research activities.

Fifth, we are seeing new arrangements for biomedical research, including joint ventures with profit-making corporations and, indeed, corporations being developed by universities. These new arrangements have caused us to re-examine our concepts of conflicts of interest, communication of research results, and other aspects of the research environment.

Sixth, a new phrase has been added to our lexicon, namely, scientific misconduct. Whether the increased frequency is real or apparent, it has become a problem that must be faced. I first became involved with this while in Washington, and cases began to surface. At first, most of us felt that we were only seeing a few aberrant cases, but as the situation became more public, I was stunned at the number of investigations we were forced to undertake largely due to reports from scientists in academic institutions. Some of the more prestigious medical journals in the world have found it necessary to retract publications. Now, most academic institutions have policies in place to deal with something that was virtually unheard of 10 years ago. Those that don’t have such policies should develop them. The reported occurrences have called into question the whole concept of peer review of scientific research. At least one journal now requires signed verification of the involvement of co-authors, and a conference will soon be held to explore better ways to ensure that articles published in our journals are valid reports. Yet, some still say that scientific misconduct is not a problem; rather, a few people are making too much of a few instances. One can only wonder how many cases constitute a problem - one? - two? - three? - more? The acceptance of scientific results by the public is based upon credibility, and I would argue that one case is too many. It is our responsibility to initiate the steps necessary to prevent more.

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