10 May 2023
QIMR Berghofer Council has accepted institutional responsibility for the findings of an independent review into its internal processes for research integrity and culture conducted by former Federal Court judge and inaugural Independent Commissioner against Corruption (South Australia), Hon Bruce Lander KC (Lander Review).
The findings demonstrate that while the Institute didn’t know about the misconduct by former employee, Professor Mark Smyth, during his employment from 2013 until he was stood down pending an investigation in October 2020, it ought to have known.
The Council has undertaken extensive reforms since being made aware of the allegations in September 2020, and welcomed the findings of the Lander Review, which give added impetus to efforts to strengthen assurance of research integrity at the Institute.
Council Chair Professor Arun Sharma apologises for the past failings which resulted in serious research misconduct by Professor Smyth not being acted upon sooner.
“While the findings relating to these historical complaints make sobering reading for the Institute, we are reassured that the independent review found that the risk of this sort of conduct happening today and not being acted upon is greatly reduced,” Professor Sharma said.
“Council identified the need for significant reform as soon as we became aware of the allegations and we left no stone unturned in proactively commissioning the independent review to fully understand whether the reforms already being implemented would drive the necessary improvements,” he said.
The comprehensive reform program has been overseen by QIMR Berghofer Director and CEO Professor Fabienne Mackay who had been in the role just three months when whistleblowers raised concerns with her.
Professor Mackay said the findings and recommendations would continue to guide the Institute’s journey to securing and maintaining the very highest standard of research quality.
“The Institute acted decisively when we received the allegations of misconduct in September 2020, and we are undertaking reforms to not only assure and protect research integrity, but ensure that our culture is first and foremost, one of openness, care, respect and transparency.
“I am very proud that the tremendous amount of work we have done over the past few years has been acknowledged by the industry as setting the new benchmark for research integrity and quality in Australia.
“On behalf of the Institute I’d like to acknowledge the courage of those who brought these allegations to light and the incredible employees of the QIMR Berghofer family for their dedication and support during a very challenging period,” Professor Mackay said.
On receiving the allegations in September 2020, the Institute referred the matter to the CCC and commissioned an independent Investigation Panel, chaired by former judge of the Queensland Court of Appeal, the Hon. Robert Gotterson AO KC. The Panel found that Professor Smyth had seriously breached the Australian Code for Responsible Conduct of Research.
The Institute’s Council then commissioned an independent review (the Lander Review) to thoroughly understand the circumstances of the misconduct in order to optimise its reform program.
The Lander Review found “no one in authority knew that Professor Smyth engaged in research misconduct” and there was no evidence or suggestion that council members were aware of any aspect of the conduct. However, Mr Lander identified “barriers” that existed within the Institute at the time which had prevented the misconduct from being detected or investigated sooner. They included an imbalance of power between Professor Smyth and researchers, research assistants and students. Mr Lander found that some whistleblowers had not been afforded appropriate care, respect or credibility when they had tried to raise their concerns.
The Lander Review found that, since 2020, QIMR Berghofer had acted “expeditiously and laboriously” to address the consequences of Professor Smyth’s conduct, and to change its governance structures, address its internal culture, and improve its policies.
“We’ve worked very hard to right the omissions of the past – going above and beyond what would have been necessary to respond only to the issues identified in the independent Investigation Panel’s report. So we are heartened that the Lander Review found the Institute’s response has been ‘exemplary’,” Professor Sharma said.
The Lander Review found that QIMR Berghofer has addressed cultural issues, and that the recent appointments of the Director and CEO, the Chief Operating Officer, the Chief People Officer and the General Manager of Research Governance and Funding, had all led to positive cultural change.
In addition to the work already undertaken by the Institute, Mr Lander made 25 recommendations, all of which are in the process of being implemented.
QIMR Berghofer is a world-leading, translational medical research institute focused on improving the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer, infectious diseases, inflammation, genetics of disease, mental health, neuroscience and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health. For nearly 80 years, the Institute has delivered medical health discoveries that have revolutionised health and wellbeing outcomes for not only Queenslanders, but people nationally and globally. It has been at the forefront of major research breakthroughs into some of the greatest health challenges of our time, including COVID-19.
The proactive response to this past episode strengthens the assurance of research integrity and the promise of future impactful breakthroughs.