Science - March 17, 2005

‘Not ready for contract research’

Wageningen is not ready for intensive collaboration with the private sector and other clients according to Professor Martijn Katan. Katan was speaking in response to rector Professor Bert Speelman’s speech on Foundation Day last week. ‘You won’t find cases of gross scientific fraud in Wageningen,’ said Katan, ‘But if Wageningen University doesn’t wake up to the fact that its young researchers are under considerable pressure, things could change.’

In his speech Speelman referred to the fear that scientists would lose their integrity by doing contract research as ‘exaggerated’ and ‘food for the tabloid press’. ‘The moment that we as university scientists surrender our independence, we are no longer interesting for that cursed organisation ‘industry’,’ said the Rector. ‘Fraud is not in the interests of the researcher or the corporate client.’

‘That is absolutely the case,’ says Katan. ‘At least in the long term: if Wageningen loses its reputation we will no longer be attractive. But the short-term reality is that of a young research team leader who has to keep his team in work, perhaps also with his own job on the line, and who has to earn his money from the market. The pressure on Wageningen researchers is growing, but they cannot count on support from the university.’

The university could for example publish a short and clear declaration that would provide clarity to all concerned, says Katan. ‘Something like: research results are to be made public, regardless of their outcome and they will not be adjusted to suit the commercial interests of the research sponsor.’

‘Confidential research cannot be done within a university,’ continues Katan. ‘Nevertheless in the ethical guidelines on the intranet I read that more and more research is no longer being published. As if that is a fait accompli that we just have to live with!’ The guidelines also say that we should regard a patent as a publication. Not so, says Katan. Scientific publications should be subjected to the critical judgement of other scientists, in independent journals. Otherwise they are not proper publications.’

Wageningen University gives standard contracts to its researchers who do research for companies or institutions. These could be made clearer, concludes Katan. ‘There was always a clause in the contracts I had with companies stating that I would publish my findings. In the standard contract there is a passage which indicates that the client can leave out findings that are not to his advantage when the research results are published.’ / WK

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