Speech by NTU President Professor Subra Suresh at the Singapore Research Integrity Conference

Published on: 22-Oct-2018

Speech by
Professor Subra Suresh
President, Nanyang Technological University


22 October 2018
Matrix, Biopolis

Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen

I am happy to see so many participants here today. It shows there is very strong interest and active involvement in ensuring that Singapore’s research operates at the highest standards. This must include excellence in every aspect of our research activities, not least in terms of best research practice and the highest standards of ethics.

Importance of research integrity 

As an active researcher myself, and also having been an administrator in a funding agency as well as in a university at different levels, I can vouch for the importance of conducting research with utmost integrity and in such a way that the results are reproducible and replicable. Research is incremental most of the time, and, we build on the work of others, and our work will only have credibility if others are able to reproduce them and improve on them. Others must regard our research as trustworthy. 

At the US National Science Foundation between 2010 and 2013, when I had the privilege of leading the agency, my colleagues and I not only had a moral duty to ensure that the research that we funded was properly based, and conducted at the highest levels of research integrity. I, as head of NSF, and the agency itself had a legal obligation to ensure that the institutions receiving our grants had the necessary policies and procedures in place to promote the responsible conduct of research. This was an important responsibility that the Foundation had to shoulder, working very closely with the independent Office of Inspector-General of NSF that reports directly to the National Science Board and to the United States Congress.

NTU likewise takes research integrity and good research practice extremely seriously. As the people working on the front line, our faculty and research staff are the ones who, on a daily basis, have to tackle the challenge of how to apply ethical principles in practice to scientific and medical research. 

Besides promoting responsible research conduct and being good role models, we also firmly believe that a fundamental requirement is to educate and train the next generation of researchers, especially young students. Mandatory programmes on research integrity and ethics have been extended to all our research staff and faculty in addition to research students. To set the right tone, the Provost, Vice President for Research, all the Deans and myself as President, we felt it was important that we took all the courses that were required for all of our faculty and staff, to demonstrate that no one is exempt from such requirements which are put in place with the best intentions for the institution and the individuals. 

A few years ago, the United States National Academy of Sciences in partnership with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held a gathering of about 15 people in California, Palm Springs, specifically consider and provide input on research integrity and related issues including reproducibility. 

Our group of 15 came up with a report that was published in Science magazine in June 2015. It is worth re-stating some of our conclusions from that meeting that are very pertinent to today’s meeting. 

In our report, we said that:
“Ensuring that the integrity of science is protected is the responsibility of many stakeholders”;

“Incentives should be changed so that scholars are rewarded for publishing well rather than often”;

“…each branch of science (should) invest in case studies identifying what went wrong in a selected subset of non-reproducible publications”; 

and finally we concluded that:
“If science is to enhance its capacities to improve our understanding of ourselves and our world, protect the hard-earned trust and esteem in which society holds it, and preserve its role as a driver of our economy, scientists must safeguard its rigour and reliability in the face of challenges posed by a research ecosystem that is evolving in dramatic and sometimes unsettling ways”. 

This was true in 2015 and it is even more true and required today.

Data management planning

One important action, very relevant to our topic today, is data management planning (DMP). An important first step for any researcher is to carefully map out and plan each research project. The plan is essential to guide the production of results and the archiving of data in a useable form for others to draw on. This, and many other initiatives we have taken, is aimed at producing the highest standards of integrity and ethics. 

NTU takes the view that research misconduct is a multiple failure, primarily the individual but also the institution, and we always try to learn and improve after such incidents. No university, as Mr Lim Chuan Poh has said, can claim to be immune from research misconduct from the examples he cited. In NTU, we do our best to minimise such incidents. Misconduct, when it does occur, is not just a failure on the part of the individual.  We look at international best practices and we are committed to adopting the highest standards of research and publication ethics and standards at all times.

Strengthen research through best practices

This second Singapore meeting on research integrity is a follow-up on the Second World Conference in which our three institutions – NTU, A*STAR and NUS – hosted in 2010. 

Today’s programme, focusing on reproducibility – a matter of increasing concern – is an excellent one and we are fortunate to have inspiring keynote speakers representing major publishing houses as well as industry. 

It is important to note that the contribution of the private sector to the global research endeavour is extremely important not just with respect to positive results, but equally with respect to negative results, which often don’t see the light of day in publications. 

Finally, the presence of representatives from four of the world’s foremost scientific publishers is another recognition of the importance of this meeting and the topic it aims to discuss. Journals have a critical role to play in upholding research integrity and it will be very instructive to hear from them later.

In May 2012, the US National Science Foundation established the Global Research Council. One of the objectives of forming that group, which comprised more than 95% of all the funding agencies in the world to come together for the first time, was to start a conversation on the importance of research integrity. At the conclusion of that meeting, Science magazine asked us to put together an editorial on what happened at that meeting, and what some of the principles are. 

One of the guidelines they gave us in writing that short editorial was to come up with one statement that captures the spirit of the importance of ethics, integrity and reproducibility in science. So the statement we came up with was: “Good science anywhere is good for science everywhere. Good science inevitably relies on research integrity.” 

On behalf of NTU, I am delighted that the University is playing a significant role, not only in this meeting, but in the promotion of research integrity in Singapore. I wish to thank the organisers for putting together a very stimulating and informative programme. Thank you.

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