Organisation - March 24, 2011

Employees' Councils reject strategic plan

The Employees' Councils are concerned about the impact on independence and image of an increase in contract research. 'Science is being used as a production factor'

Wiebe Aans:  'Researchers will be put under pressure'
The photos had been taken, the text was ready and the layout for the booklet was almost complete:
the 2011 - 2014 Strategic Plan was really supposed to go to the printers' month. But after three months of talks, the Executive Board and the two Employees' Councils are still unable to agree.
The main objection is about how the Executive Board wants to deal with the government cuts. The Strategic Plan says: 'This is a reason for putting even more emphasis on the contribution research and teaching make as driving forces for the economy and in strengthening the private sector.'
Dubious image
'There is not much wrong with this as such', says Wiebe Aans of GV, the Employees' Council representing the University's interests. 'But if you have increasingly close links with the market, science will be increasingly used as a production factor, and this can affect our integrity and people's trust in us. You need to be aware of this and develop policy to deal with it. Wageningen already has a reputation of lending too willing an ear to the private sector. The recent Zembla programme about the Wageningen bee research is just one example of that.'
Ombudsman
The Executive Board thinks there are sufficient safeguards for academic values in the University contracts and in the delivery terms and conditions of DLO. Spokesman Simon Vink: 'Our standards say no influencing the results is permitted. If you are carrying out research in the midst of society you are always going to have discussions. But we have thirty years of experience doing projects for third parties, and there has never been any question of modifying results.'
Last week, GV proposed appointing an ombudsman. Unlike the present counsellors, this person should have enough resources to investigate cases and make public statements about them. The Employees' Councils and the Executive Board will be talking further on Monday. All parties expect to be able to work something out together.
'Science should be objective'
As chairman of the GV, General Studies employee Wiebe Aans stands up for academic values

'If you lean more on the market, you can expect conflicts of interest to become more common. Researchers will be put under pressure to publish something, or not publish something, or to draw certain conclusions.
We have a professor here paid by Campina who said that milk is healthy. Then there is the case of Cees Veeger a little while back; the manufacturer of a medicine put a lot of pressure on him not to publish that a certain compound was missing in that medicine. Veeger published this anyway but he did then have to deal with financial claims that even led to possession of his house.
Despite this, I think abuses are rare; the main problem is the large grey area where it is difficult to know what is going on.  The Executive Board is taking steps to become more market-oriented. That is fine, but you then also have to take steps to safeguard the University's position. Integrity and public trust are part of that: the general public needs to be able to trust that statements made by scientists are independent and objective.'

Re:act