Organisation - April 22, 2016

Column: Post-Panama science

Stijn van Gils

My colleagues and I don’t dodge taxes. We just count nematodes, aphids or bacteria and try to write a nice article about them. That’s because we are ordinary people who just want to help make the world a slightly better place and then maybe go for a beer.

But something is bugging me. Joris Luyendijk, the Dutch journalist who has interviewed hundreds of people in the financial sector, stresses that financial professionals are pretty ordinary people too. In an article in the Dutch newspaper the NRC entitled, ‘Panama is legal, so what’s stopping them?’ and describes it could happen that ordinary people facilitated tax-dodging.

His account contains ingredients such as extremely high work pressure, a lot of internal competition and the constant risk of losing your job. Under this extreme pressure, people switch off their moral compass. ‘You become exclusively focused on “corporate survival”: getting your job done,’ writes Luyendijk.

Of course, a university is not a bank and our work pressure is doubtless not particularly extreme, but the principles in our field are comparable. Our careers are uncertain too. We feel that our work pressure as too high, too, and whether or not we get published in Nature or Science can make us or break us. Increasing competition for research grants and the government’s goal of even higher scientific productivity put more pressure on the whole system. I think we should draw preventive conclusions from the Panama Papers affair. Let’s just abandon the H index, tenure track and all those other competitive elements. Yes, no doubt productivity in the scientific world will go down and maybe Wageningen UR will drop down the international rankings. Too bad. Reliable and ethical scientific research is too important to be jeopardized for the sake of a bit more productivity.

Stijn van Gils (28) is doing doctoral research on ecosystem services in agriculture. Every month he describes his struggles with the scientific system.