Nieuws - 7 april 2011

Under pressure from the client: Wageningen and academic ethics

Scientists who work on a contract basis for commercial companies: a suspect combination in the eyes of the general public. For this reason, the employees' council would prefer to see less emphasis on contract research in the new strategic plan. Is this concern about a conflict of interests justified? 'There is a grey area.'

'Because Wageningen also does research for... Bayer.' The ominous tone of the voiceover leaves little doubt about the sympathies of the programme. The recent report on Zembla, a Dutch TV current affairs programme, zoomed in on the worrying decline in world bee populations.
Researchers from Wageningen UR believe the varroa mite to be the main culprit, while others focus more on the role of certain brands of insecticide. Who is right? In the eyes of Zembla, Wageningen's link with Bayer makes the Wageningen researcher suspect, all the more when he confirms in front of the camera that his publications have not been published in peer-reviewed journals for some time now. And for Zembla that seems to be tantamount to unreliable amateurism.

Contract research is core business
Wageningen UR runs up against this issue quite regularly: a suspected lack of academic independence. More than any other university in the Netherlands, Wageningen is associated with a specific economic sector, the agro industry. To complicate matters further, Wageningen UR includes both a university and non-university research institutes. For university research groups, contract research is generally a nice sideline, but for the Wageningen DLO institutes, it is their core business. Does that undermine the independence of the researchers?
Not necessarily, says Prof. Herman Eijsackers, Wageningen's eminence grise.
Eijsackers chairs the ethics committee and is the confidential contact person for researchers facing tricky ethical issues in their work. Eijsackers also helped develop the Wageningen Code of Conduct for scientists, in which a broad range of ethical guidelines and limits are outlined, including some relating to the question of independence.

National Code of Conduct
Eijsackers acknowledges that there can be tensions when researchers work on contract to companies or government. 'That is why it is important to establish the rights and obligations of both parties and to be open and transparent about them.' He explains that the code of conduct is part of a larger set of protocols and documents aiming to preserve Wageningen's academic independence at all levels. At the top of the list is a national code of conduct drawn up by the Association of Dutch Universities (VSNU), which provides broad guidelines on the ethical criteria that academic research should meet. Besides some conventional wisdom about referencing sources and 'relationships with junior colleagues', there are also solid chapters on impartiality and independence. The national code of conduct forms the basis for the Wageningen one, with specific Wageningen-related issues added to it. It states, for example, that a researcher always has the right to publicize his/her results if the research is being misused or if a failure to publish could be harmful to people or their environment. In its turn, the code of conduct forms the basis of the terms and conditions of Wageningen UR's contracts.

Grey area

This has dispelled much of the potential tension around this subject. And anyone who does feel pressurized by a client can defend themselves by referring to the various protocols. The only question is: does it work in practice? Imagine, for example, that a researcher is asked by a client to postpone publication for a while in exchange for further research? A carrot instead of a stick, with the promise of a higher turnover for the institute.
Yes, there is a grey area, admits Eijsackers. 'Considerations of this sort are not necessarily wrong if the further research would add to the value of the final publication. So it is difficult to lay down rules about when you have crossed the line, ethically. Researchers usually have a good feel for that themselves.
In any case, it would seem researchers do not often find themselves in a tight spot on this count. As the confidential contact person on 'academic integrity', Eijsackers only handles the occasional isolated case each year, which he declines to discuss. He does of course hear the stories circulating in the organization. The stories about researchers put under pressure by their own department to withhold all or part of their findings out of business considerations. 'But it is extraordinarily difficult to get the measure gauge of these sorts of stories', thinks Eijsackers. 'When you ask for concrete examples, nothing ever comes of it.'

Code of conduct not well-known

According to Eijsackkers, it would be a good thing if there were more discussion of the ethical aspects of the work in Wageningen research circles. And it would be good if people knew more about the rights and obligations the organization espouses. Because Eijsackers is perfectly well aware that the Code of Conduct is not lying on every Wageningen researcher's bedside table. 'Just like most people, researchers only think about the ethical limits affecting their work when they run up against them. That is OK, but you should at least know where to find the information you need at that point, and who you can look to for support.'
Whatever the case, we have to learn to live with the fact that as an institution we work in a field in which there are ethical tensions. Important as public opinion may be, the risk of damage to our image that was so clearly exemplified by the Zembla programme must not stand in the way of sound scientific practice. The latter benefits precisely from a good mix of fundamental research with more applied forms of research.
Eijsackers: 'In the nineteen seventies when I started out in the academic world, it was easy. All the funding came from government. As a researcher you were safe, although very far away, in your ivory tower. But that is absolutely not what we want any more. Research should help society to progress and to do that you have to be in the thick of things.'

DLO research can be confidential
The key difference between DLO contract conditions and those of the university concerns publication. A research contract with the university states that researchers always have the right to publish immediately. There is one exception to this. If there is the possibility of a patent application, publication may be delayed for a maximum of six months. In contrast, it is permissible for the results of DLO research to remain unknown to the outside world. This varies per project, but DLo researchers can make an agreement that they will only report to their client. But if the results are misused or if there is any danger to health or environment, a researcher may challenge the client on this point. If not enough notice is taken, he or she can then take the case to the authorities. An example would be: if a Wageningen entomologist concludes that Bayer is developing an insecticide that could be harmful to bees and Bayer goes ahead with marketing the product. DLO studies for the government (usually the ministry of Economy, Agriculture and Innovation, EL&I) are always published, as a rule two months after delivery. This gives the minister some time to take up a position and formulate a policy on the issue.In contrast to the university, DLO researchers have an continuous influence on the presentation of results. There is often a steering committee that discusses interim results and the first draft of the report. One striking example of a textual intervention was the study on the decline of Wadden Sea birds in 2003. Under pressure from the then ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food, Alterra researcher Bruno Ens changed the order of the causes given in the summary of the report for the general public. Ens later admitted that it was not in fact the cleaner water but the fishing industry that was the main culprit.

Rob Goossens and Gaby van Caulil