Science - March 16, 2006

‘Code of conduct not strict enough’

Wageningen UR needs to tighten up its code of conduct for researchers in order to protect itself better against the increased influence of clients from the commercial sector, according to the Technology Assessment Steering Committee at the ministry of agriculture. The committee also believes that the quality of DLO research suffers because the institutes are too protected from competition.

The steering committee’s report, entitled ‘He who pays, decides?’, was presented on 16 March to the director general of the ministry of agriculture, Ate Oostra, and Professor Martin Kropff, rector of Wageningen University. The group notes that the position of the average researcher has become ‘structurally weaker’ and emphasises the importance of a ‘robust code of conduct’.

The Ethical Guidelines that Wageningen UR drew up in 2004 already need to be revised, according to the steering committee. A distinction needs to be made between the university and the DLO research institutes. For the university the code needs to be tightened up so that it is in line with the declaration of scientific independence of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. One of the standard conditions should be a non-negotiable right to publish, with a maximum delay of six months. Researchers should also declare their interests more clearly, students should not be able to claim confidentiality, and the researcher should have the right to authorise summaries. ‘If a client does not agree to these conditions then the assignment should not go to the university,’ the report states.

The committee compiled the advisory report because it is concerned about the ‘worrying developments in science worldwide’. The increase in contract research done by universities and other public research institutes is leading to increased risks concerning reliability, access, diversity and innovatory strength of research. According to the steering committee, however, there is no reason to suppose that the situation in Wageningen is worse than elsewhere. The steering committee also advises the minister to open up a higher proportion of the programme money to public tender. At present only five percent (10 million euros) is put out to public tender. According to the steering committee this makes DLO ‘more protected from competition than is good for the quality, creativity and diversity’.

The advisory committee is critical of the fusion between the university and the research institutes and advises Wageningen UR to make the different responsibilities of each part clear, and to actively encourage ‘the open and independent university culture’. The Executive Board of Wageningen UR was unavailable for comment on the report. / GvM

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