Ensure grants goto quality research

Sunday June 10, 2012

http://thestar.com.my/education/story.asp?file=/2012/6/10/education/11415030&sec=education

CONSIDER this. The Dots pullout of the Sunday Star (April 1) reported that 47 out of 53 “landmark” publications on cancer, published in top science journals could not be replicated.

Glenn Begley, the former head of global cancer research at Amgen Inc, an international company headquartered in Thousand Oaks, California, reported this in Nature, a renowned science journal.

Begley said that one of the 53 publications was scrutinised “line-by-line” and replicated 50 times but none produced data similar to that published. When asked, the author of the publication said he had conducted the test six times, got the result once, and put it in the paper because it made the best story.

The quality of research, its scientific worth and reliability is determined by whether its findings and data can be reproduced using the same methods and procedures.

This raises the question: If research published in top science journals is at stake, who is checking the quality of research in our country? Our government has spent billions of ringgit on research grants since 1996, mostly given to universities.

A criterion for promoting university teaching staff is the the number of academic publications a candidate has.

To publish, an academic has to conduct research. In publishing as many papers as possible, for promotion or to reach a KPI (Key Performance Index), academia has turned into a rat race.

There have been cases in which lecturers produced close to 20 research papers a year. How does one determine the quality of research produced at this rate?

Many researchers are also teaching six to 12 hours a week; in certain universities, 18 hours.

One wonders how a lecturer with such a full schedule is able to produce so many research papers in a year. Conversely, how is he able to focus on teaching if he spends that much time in laboratories doing research and publishing papers?

Anyway, there are a few ways an academic can publish in journals. A keen researcher can use his grants to hire research assistants.

In another set-up, a lecturer may have a number of students, usually PhD and Master’s candidates, under his or her tutelage to conduct research with him. Their names are included in each other’s projects. But again, how is the quality of research determined?

As most research is conducted in university laboratories by academics and students, universities are expected to be responsible for the quality. If so, what measures do they take to determine the quality of research?

While some may argue that replicating results is not necessary to establish scientific validity, the public has the right to know if the research funded by their money is of top quality.

Although scientific research is unpredictable by nature, researchers and scientists in universities and government research agencies must be able to justify public expenditure on their work.

Sound and practical measures must be in place to prevent unreliable grant-takers, hiding behind science, from deceiving the very people who support them.

DR MEGAWATI OMAR Academy of Language Studies, Shah Alam