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NIHR shows the way in avoiding waste in research

Date: 10 March 2017

A letter published by the Lancet, 9 March 2017, asks how transparent funding agencies are about the policies and procedures they use to reduce waste and support methodological research and research infrastructure, and what they are doing to secure best value for taxpayers.

The NIHR is pointed to as a funder who has already taken steps to address this issue with measures such as the extensive involvement of members of the general public; and the requirement for reference to relevant systematic reviews in all funding applications.

It has been estimated that up to 85% of medical research is wasted because it asks the wrong question, is badly designed, not published or poorly reported. A new study, carried out by an international team of researchers led by Dr. Mona Nasser of Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry, has found that funders are not as open as they could be about what they are doing to prevent this waste and that governments responsible for the public money they distribute are not holding them to account.

The research team worked through the websites of 11 national research funders which distribute public funds in the UK, Australia, Canada, USA, Germany, France, The Netherlands, Denmark and Norway. They looked for information on how the agencies decide what to fund and how they ensure that what they do fund is not wasteful.

The research team found the approaches taken by each funding body to be varied. Weaknesses were applicable across them all including the domination of some grant committees by academics, which meant that the priorities of patients, clinicians and policymakers were not represented. Decisions were also often made without the systematic assessment of existing research evidence.

Professor Mike Clarke, one of the letter’s authors from Queen’s University Belfast, said: “While our findings make for sobering reading, there are moves afoot in some nations to address the issue. I am delighted that here in the UK the NIHR has taken leadership to encourage discussions how we can add value to research in funding agencies.”

Fellow author Sir Iain Chalmers from the James Lind Initiative added: “I am delighted that NIHR, in partnership with Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) in the US and ZonMW in The Netherlands, has convened international discussions with other funding agencies about ways to add value and reduce waste in research.”

Internationally, the Evidence Based Research Network is one of the initiatives that might help. It is led by Hans Lund at Western Norway University of Applied Sciences and is attempting to address the practical and methodological questions about using a systematic assessment of existing research to inform the selection and design of all proposed new research.

Matt Westmore, the NIHR lead for Adding Value in Research and NIHR representative for the Evidence Based Research Network commented, “The issues highlighted in this letter are important and we are pleased this study recognises that the NIHR is leading the way in resolving them. We are constantly seeking new ways of improving and have established the Adding Value in Research Framework. This is driving us to seek value in everything we do and maximise the potential impact of our research for patients and the public. The letter also highlights these are challenges for all research funders across the world and so we are also pleased that there is a clear commitment for funders from around the globe to work together. We are sharing approaches on what works and working together to develop new approaches to reduce waste and increase the value of research."

Examples of how the NIHR is adding value in research include:

  • INVOLVE and over 200 members of staff across NIHR have explicit responsibilities around public involvement in research, ensuring the public are at the heart of everything we do
  • Support for the James Lind Alliance and the commissioning of research explicitly identified and prioritised by those that plan, deliver and use health services
  • A requirement that all primary research is grounded in a review of what is already known
  • Clinical Research Networks ensure efficient and effective delivery of studies
  • The Journals Library publishes full project details and open access reports of funded research
  • The Dissemination Centre helps NHS clinicians, commissioners and patients make informed decisions about which treatments and practices are most effective in health care, social care and public health by developing and disseminating usable and unbiased outputs.
  • Summary:
    A letter published in the Lancet asks how funders are ensuring that research waste is reduced and best value is secured for taxpayers. The NIHR has been highlighted as a funder who has already taken steps to address this issue.
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