Academic independence needs to be safeguarded: report


Research conducted by universities is increasingly compromised by the companies or the organisations who commission it, the Royal Netherlands Academy for Arts and Sciences (KNAW) has said in an advisory report out on Tuesday.

Although the academy has not found ‘any signs of structural self-censorship or lack of diversity of perspective’, the government and politicians have to remain ‘alert’ to the danger of socially relevant research curtailing academic freedom and ‘undesirable influence from a financier on methods, interpretation and publication of results’, the KNAW writes.

The report comes in the wake of concerns raised last year by the then VVD MP Pieter Duisenberg which centred on possible self-censorship and left-leaning political bias at Dutch universities.

Nico Schrijver, the chairman of the KNAW committee responsible for the findings says there is cause for concern. ‘Research policy is being forced in a certain direction. Universities have less financial room for independent research,’ he told the NRC.

But the accusation of political left-wing bias he dismissed as ‘irrelevant’. ‘You can’t really say such and such a university is a left-wing bastion.

Both left and right are represented. There are many left-wingers among political scientists but equally the business economy department will have few GroenLinks voters,’ the paper quotes him as saying. ‘We don’t need to know as long as everyone abides by the scientific rules.’

Corporate cash

KNAW says money provided by companies is a greater threat to scientific independence than a lack of diversity of perspective, which Schrijver said is also determined by the ‘spirit of the times’.

Among the examples cited by the NRC of  ‘a tenuous relationship with scientific freedom’ is a report by the Rotterdam School of Management called Wederzijds Profijt (Mutual profit) paid for by Shell, AkzoNobel, DSM, Philips and Unilever which recommended lower costs for big corporations.

The report played a part in bringing about a controversial measure which gave corporations a tax break for innovation. The names of the sponsors did not appear in the report, the NRC said.