Organisatie - 1 mei 2013

Ombudsman: 'Science to order'

Brenninkmeijer critical about Wageningen UR's role in conflict with researcher.
Wageningen UR denies having kept back study.

Wageningen UR has given the impression of having produced science to order, concludes national ombudsman Alex Brenninkmeijer in a report that was published on 11 April. He produced this report at the request of researcher 'X' at Alterra who came into conflict with the university six years ago about the publication of his research data.
In a study conducted back then for the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL), X concluded that groundwater levels were being measured incorrectly, which meant that the extent of drying out was less than assumed by the government. However, PBL disagreed with the conclusions and consequently the report was only published two and a half years later. In the meantime, a second study of the same subject that came to different conclusions was published more quickly. As a result, it remained unclear that there might be doubts about the accuracy of the groundwater level measurements.
According to the ombudsman, this state of affairs gives the impression that Wageningen UR gives higher priority to good relations with its client PBL than to free scientific debate about all research results. In a press release, Wageningen UR denies letting the relationship with the client take precedence over timely publication of the research report. The researcher had already published parts of the report in scientific journals and the report itself was eventually published. The measurements of the groundwater levels were correct but there were doubts about the conclusions he drew from those measurements, says Wageningen UR. That was a scientific difference of opinion. It is still unclear who is right in terms of the science.

Impaired relationship
At the time, the issue prompted researcher X to make use of Wageningen UR's whistle-blower scheme. In the meantime, the relationship with Alterra deteriorated. X came into conflict with a working group that assessed the scientific question. Eventually, last year, the court terminated the whistle-blower's employment contract because of the impaired relationship. The judge ruled that the source of the dispute lay with Alterra because it did not publish the researcher's report. But he also concluded that the researcher was increasingly fighting a lonely battle against injustice, whereas after the late publication the employer could not be blamed for anything. X submitted three whistle-blower reports. The ombudsman is now the third party to assess his complaint, after Wageningen UR and the municipality. 

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