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Medical research funders, governments and research waste – are taxpayers getting ‘bang for their buck’?

By Mona Nasser - posted Tuesday, 14 March 2017


It's estimated that 85% of medical research is wasted.

This is not because it was a bad idea to carry it out in the first place, or that scientists and researchers are profligate with their projects. The waste comes from asking the wrong question, bad design or poor reporting – and in a study carried out with colleagues from around the world, and published online in The Lancet, we found that at the root of this issue were funding bodies not taking responsibility for the efficiency of the research they have used public money to fund, and governments not holding those funding bodies to account.

We worked through the websites of 11 national research funders which distribute funds in the UK, Australia, Canada, US, Germany, France, The Netherlands, Denmark and Norway. The research funder we investigated in Australia was the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

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NHMRC has some good practices, such as supporting the Australian New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry and requiring registration for the clinical trials it funds. However, there are several practices that are currently used in other agencies that could help in adding value to research – including stronger involvement of patients in setting a research agenda and requiring systematic reviews before funding all new research.

We found variety and weaknesses in approach across all 11 funders, including: the domination of some grant committees by academics, which is a problem because the priorities of patients, clinicians and policymakers can differ from those of researchers, and the fact that practice and policy decisions were often made without the systematic assessment of existing research evidence.

There were instances of good practice: some funders, such as the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) in the UK and ZonMW in The Netherlands have already addressed one of the weaknesses with extensive involvement of members of the general public; and the only funder to require reference to relevant systematic reviews in all funding applications is NIHR.

While it is clear that the system could use an overhaul to increase efficiency and accountability, as authors of The Lancet letter we do not advocate that governments take our findings and use them as an excuse to cut medical research budgets. But as public funds become increasingly squeezed there is no better time for funding agencies and governments to work together to ensure that we all get the best 'bang for the buck'. Indeed, there is a duty to taxpayers for this to happen.

So, what can funders and governments do? Both need to give greater attention to reducing avoidable waste and increasing the value of research investments. They need to adopt strategies to reduce avoidable waste by rooting out avoidable inefficiencies in the use of limited resources.

Funders should insist on systematic reviews of existing evidence before embarking on supporting additional research. They should also insist on rigorous research design and execution and all results should be published – in an easily-accessible and understandable format.

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Internationally, moves are afoot to improve the situation. The NIHR, in partnership with the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute in the US and ZonNW in The Netherlands, has convened international discussions with other funding agencies to explore ways in which value can be added and avoidable waste reduced in research.

A key initiative is the Evidence Based Research Network, led by Hans Lund at Western Norway University of Applied Sciences. It is attempting to address the practical and methodological questions about using a systemic assessment of existing research to inform the selection and design of all proposed new research.

My interest in this area came about when I was a practising dental clinician. I wanted to base my clinical practice in evidence, yet the research findings available did not necessarily address the questions I wanted to be answered. This led me to question how the research question had come about, and what thought had been given to how the results of that research could translate into clinical practice.

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About the Author

Dr Mona Nasser is Clinical Lecturer in Evidence Based Dentistry, Peninsula Dental School (Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry).

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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