Changing the research culture in biomedical science

The QUEST Center for Transforming Biomedical Research at the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) is publishing the first review of its activities after three years of work, is founding the German Reproducibility network and is also hosting a quality conference in Berlin in February 2020. Journalists are welcome to attend the conference.

For the past three years the BIH QUEST Center has focused its work around one central question: How good is biomedical research? QUEST is an acronym that stands for Quality, Ethics, Open Science and Translation. The center was established in the wake of reports that found that fewer than half of all published results across biomedicine are reproducible. One reason for this is that the study designs for such research often lack key quality indicators. For example, there are no control groups, the sample sizes are not large enough to be statistically meaningful, data from all measurements are not published or evaluations are calculated incorrectly.

“Thus it is no surprise that the translation of findings from basic biomedical research to clinical research is rarely successful or seldom leads to new therapies,” says Professor Ulrich Dirnagl, founding director of the BIH QUEST Center.

Enormous pressure in Science

The researchers at QUEST have identified the enormous pressure that scientists face as one of the causes of this problem. “Scientists have to obtain third-party funding, train young researchers and publish frequently in high-ranking journals. There is often little time to think about the quality of research in a structured way,” explains Dirnagl. “We therefore provide incentives and tools that enable researchers to tackle the issue of research quality.”

The QUEST Center is, for example, offering funding incentives for making publicly available all raw data from experiments, is helping to introduce electronic lab notebooks and to publish clinical trials, and is offering courses – on subjects such as robust statistical methods for biomedical research and data disclosure – in which early-career scientists in particular are trained in research quality assurance.

“It will be a few years before we can know whether our activities have achieved the desired effect,” says Dirnagl. The QUEST team is carrying out intensive supporting research on the measures that they have implemented. “We have so far only been able to ascertain that more and more research groups are making their data publicly available and using the electronic lab notebook and that our courses are in high demand. The fact that there is a general awareness of the situation and a willingness to change research practices makes us optimistic.”

Interest in the BIH QUEST Center

The QUEST Center’s work is also recognized and valued outside the BIH translational research commons, which includes Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC). For example, the QUEST Center was closely involved in the Berlin University Alliance’s successful joint application in the German Excellence Strategy competition, and the UK-based Wellcome Trust is providing support to the QUEST Center. In addition, scientific institutions in Germany and abroad have sought out the BIH’s advice on how to establish initiatives similar to QUEST.

Ulrich Dirnagl is delighted to see the interest in the QUEST Center. “Research is increasingly networked and international. It won’t help anything if we just develop and implement new quality criteria here in Berlin.” But there are, of course, initiatives elsewhere that also want to improve the quality of biomedical research. From February 20 to 22, 2020, the QUEST Center is inviting scientists and other stakeholders to the international REWARD EQUATOR Conference in Berlin in order to discuss culture change in biomedical research and to present best practices.

Focus on strategies to increase quality

„We now have extensive evidence of the prevalence and impact of many wasteful research practices and practical strategies are emerging to improve research. At the REWARD | EQUATOR Conference 2020 our focus will shift to place emphasis on the development, evaluation and implementation of strategies to reduce waste and increase quality in research“ says Ulrich Dirnagl. Covering the perspectives of Ethics Committees and Regulators, Publishers, Institutions and Researchers, and Funders, and with dedicated sessions relating to methodological issues in Research on Research, the Conference will bring together leading practitioners in research improvement in plenary sessions, and provide ample opportunities for discussion and facilitation of new collaborative partnerships.

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Link to the publication: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3000576