Imprimir Republish

Sonia Vasconcelos

Integrity and Responsible Conduct in Research: Major Challenges

Sonia Vasconcelos is an adjunct professor in the Biosciences Education, Management and Dissemination Program at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) Institute of Medical Biochemistry. She has dedicated herself to the issue of integrity in research in recent years

I will approach scientific integrity in the context of grand challenges, looking at integrity as one of these challenges in the area of science and education policy.  One of the reasons that led me to apply this approach to this field is the fact that when it comes to scientific integrity, we often associate the subject with cases of misconduct, such as forgery, fabrication of results, cases of plagiarism of ideas, data, texts, problems of scientific authorship. Comments on some of these cases are common, whether in Brazil or in other countries, on issues which close colleagues have already encountered in developing guidelines to prevent them. In fact, cases of misconduct in research, especially in the last three decades, led to important policies to promote academic integrity. An important initial concern was how much money invested in research would be wasted on projects in which researchers falsified/fabricated results.

Although this concern remains, scientific integrity does not lead us just to misconduct and the development of recommendations for good research practices. Although they are absolutely fundamental and an important part of the set of initiatives in numerous countries—and here in Brazil especially through FAPESP and the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq)—the truth is that the size of this topic has been expanding greatly. In the field of reflections and actions on scientific integrity, I would highlight issues, for example, related to the reliability of research data—by peers and the public—to the correctness of academic literature, the concept of intellectual property, moral rights, and originality in science. These are also closely associated with the concept of plagiarism. I understand that  research integrity is a topic that should be discussed within the scope of national governance, which becomes relevant when we speak of the grand challenges in formulating science policies. In fact, it is when discussing governance that many countries begin to address this issue and it is from this perspective that we can understand scientific integrity as a grand challenge in contemporary science. In fact, treating large scientific issues as grand challenges is not a new strategy. Just look back a bit to the late nineteenth century/early twentieth century, when Dr. David Hilbert announced his 23 grand challenges in mathematics. This strategy, linked to major barriers to be overcome in mathematics, prompted the solution of several of these 23 challenges in the meantime. Grand challenges were revitalized by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to address major issues in global health. The foundation has promoted an initiative called Grand Challenges Explorations, an extension of the Grand Challenges in Global Health, and launched 14 health care challenges. In 2008, they launched a phenomenal program for public health. One of them was to develop vaccines that  needed no refrigeration— for tuberculosis and malaria, for example. Gradually, both the strategy and the concept of grand challenges have been used in different areas of knowledge as motivators of actions that are able to overcome obstacles and lead to great responses.

We see this movement in documents such as Grand Challenges Canada (2011) and the Royal Society’s The Scientific Century (2010). One point that strikes me in the Royal Society document is a reference to a critique of scientific advisers to the European Commission on how funding is out of touch with more global needs. In the specific case of the UK, the perceived relevance of policies that go beyond the particular needs of institutions and research areas and address grand challenges in a global context seems to be growing. The document also highlights the Obama administration’s strategy in approaching major issues from this perspective. In fact, recognizing that the establishment of grand challenges is a strategy of the current administration, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) recently announced a conference on the subject. The OSTP stresses that the US Agency for International Development has launched a number of these challenges, including increasing access to health care for pregnant women and newborn babies in developing countries, with a target index of at least 50%.
 Another challenge is to teach students from these low-income countries basic reading skills through the All Children Reading program.

Hilbert proposed mathematical challenges. Reports from Canada and the United Kingdom are the basis for new actions

In fact, this global dimension of the grand challenges in science is also reflected in discussions such as those at the European Science Open Forum [ESOF], a giant forum for discussion of major scientific challenges, including dialogues between science and society. The broad scope of debates on the ESOF 2012 program includes, for example, discussions related to the development of genomic tools, myths about the safety of nuclear reactors, and drugs for gene therapy.  But it also includes engaging the public with science, developing codes to promote scientific integrity and ethics in science, where questions like “why is ethics important to me?” are addressed.

Engaging the public with science, and linking science to ethics and research integrity are related topics, if we include controversial debates about the benefits of science, innovation and new technologies. In looking at these debates on the global stage, we see that these issues are not perceived in the same way by different cultures. Should they be? When we talk about ethical aspects, this “public” could be impacted in different ways, for example, in conducting research to develop new drugs. How are issues including autonomy and dignity of research subjects addressed? When we look at the recruitment of these subjects in different contexts such as Brazil, Costa Rica, Guatemala, the United States, China, and India, there are sensitive issues related to a relationship between science and society, with their own biases. These biases must be known/understood when we imagine that the geography of research collaboration increasingly brings together researchers from different cultures [The recent report Knowledge, Networks and Nations illustrates this fact]. It is not unlikely that different perceptions of scientific integrity and ethics have an important role in these interactions, which may sometimes conflict.


In the context of cross-cultural research, there are very practical situations that are easily resolved. I would say that, compared to grayer situations on responsible conduct in research, few researchers have questions on what it means to falsify a result or manufacture data. A Japanese, Turkish or Arabic researcher who spends a year of her doctoral studies in Brazil will certainly understand the seriousness of such cases as will her Brazilian colleagues. However, there are other issues that are not necessarily viewed the same way, and the way the public interacts or should interact with science is not necessarily seen or valued in the same way by all countries that participate in this growing and diverse network of collaboration. These ethical and social issues that may impact researchers/communities that interact in the international research arena differently—and that may reflect on how research and the results of research are treated, published and received by the public—are [global] challenges related to policies to promote scientific integrity.

In the context of the grand challenges, to which I have been referring, the importance of dialogue between ethics, research integrity  and public trust in science should be emphasized in the training of young researchers, and this challenge is not local. Although this need has come to be perceived as a crucial aspect of the training of these young people in many countries, much must move forward in the area of international scientific and educational policies.

This and the following articles are the result of talks given at the first of seven preparatory meetings for the 2013 World Science Forum, held at the main offices of FAPESP August 29 – 31, 2012.