Universities engage with companies to conduct research. But how do you make sure that search is not affected by this? Students worry about that. Professor Ronald Van Rack has an idea.
Students occupied the university building of the University of Amsterdam (UvA) yesterday afternoon. They did this because they wanted the university to end its cooperation with Shell. In the end, the Middle East was deployed and dozens of arrests were made. Earlier there were already actions in Eindhoven and Rotterdam.
322 million in total
Right now, there is no openness about which universities receive money from companies to do research with. But we know that it happens, says Alexandra Finkens of the Rathenau Instituut. “Almost all universities receive research money from companies. This is about 4 percent of their total funding. In 2021, this will amount to about 322 million euros in total.”
It is not known which sectors the companies come from. Vennekens believes there should be more openness. “When you have an insight into which companies are funding research and how much money is involved, it’s best to start a conversation. Then you can do more to prevent unwanted influence and ensure that research is always done independently.”
Research from a few years ago indicates that a quarter of researchers have experienced an unwanted effect at some point, says Finickens. “This applies in part to the research that companies do, but you can also get it in all other collaborative relationships.”
Unwanted influence is also a big problem, says Professor of Erasmus Values at Erasmus University, Ronald van Rack. He refers to a survey in which up to half of the academic researchers indicated that they experience client pressure. For example, customers want to change the research question or modify data or conclusions.
Scientists should not negotiate
So Van Rack understands the concerns of the angry students. “It’s great if companies, governments or NGOs want to invest in scientific research, but it’s important that that research be truly independent,” he says.
Van Rack asserts that large organizations know exactly what they want and negotiate a research question, for example. “These parties are good at negotiating and scientific researchers are not always good at negotiating with these powerful parties.”
The result can be purchased
“Individual scientists should not be put in this position of ensuring the independence of science themselves, it makes them unnecessarily vulnerable,” says van Rack. And he asserts: If something goes wrong, it will be bad for the reputation of science and this is a collective problem.
Van Rack says customers and companies, as well as governments and NGOs, must maintain scientific integrity. “If you want to buy a result, there are many commercial agencies where you can order a study. But if you want a serious scientific study, then as a customer, you shouldn’t even want to be involved.”
Greater distance between the client and the researcher
Van Rack advocates more transparency, but he also sees another solution. He wants more distance between the client and the researcher and thus advocates the creation of a fund, for example. “Companies that want something researchable can deposit money into this fund and researchers can then conduct research conscientiously.”
Van Rack also believes it is important that such research is always published. “What could happen now is that a client orders a study, but is not satisfied with the results and therefore does not publish the study. Of course that should also be prevented.”
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