Within Europe, the Netherlands have a relatively large amount of privately- funded research. At the EUR too, scientists do research with or on contract for companies. How much research is that? What does it pay? And how do you avoid convoluted situations?
1: How does the university get its money?
Universities get their money from tuition fees and three income flows. By far the most important is the ‘primary money flow’: the resources that come directly from the government. Universities can decide for themselves how they spend that money, provided it is spent on a university’s statutory tasks: education and research. For the EUR, the government contribution in 2015 was €258.3 million.
Then there are the secondary and tertiary money flows. The secondary money flow covers government subsidies that researchers can win in competitions, mainly via the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). The tertiary flow concerns all other income. That could be income from post-graduate education, public-private partnerships and large European research subsidies. It also includes the income from contract research for third parties. Those third parties range from the South Holland Provincial Authority and Rotterdam Port Authority to the Dutch Cancer Society (DCS) and the pharmaceutical industry.
2: What does the university earn from research?
The EUR’s financial statements show that more and more research income is coming from the secondary and tertiary money flows. The earnings from contract research (all research income outside the primary flow) have grown by 20% over 10 years, from €100 million in 2006 to €120 million in 2015. That money also comes from the research proceeds of the Erasmus Medical Faculty (Erasmus MC) and the companies affiliated to the university. With €25.6 million, the private sector accounts for about 20% of the EUR’s income from contract research.
3: What happens to that money?
Contract research almost always involves product-related (or person-related) funding. All faculties do contract research, but scale and realisation differ. The Faculty of Philosophy and the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC) have almost no income from companies, but at the Institute of Health Policy & Management (iBMG), companies account for more than a quarter of the income.
Bart Kuipers is a senior researcher in port economics at Regional Economy, Port and Transportation Economy (RHV).
‘I don’t see myself as a scientist, but as a conventional consultant. I only do contract research and I work for a PLC. I only have to earn back my salary. I write scientific publications at weekends. I see that as more of a hobby.
RHV does have things in common with science. I go to scientific conferences, wrote a thesis in my free time and publish in scientific journals. And of course, I have signed the scientific-integrity declaration. We also comply with the general scientific rules. The research must be reproducible, builds on scientific knowledge and states its sources.
Here I have never had a client who caused problems about the results. That did happen once in my last job at TNO. Our conclusion didn’t fit with the results the client wanted, but I wasn’t willing to change anything. That caused a major conflict. An external adviser was even brought in to assess our research. He said: with different assumptions you’ll get different conclusions. But that of course applies to all research.’
Part of the contract research is performed by operating companies of the university. These arise from the faculties and operate under the parent company, EUR Holding Ltd. The university is the sole owner of the holding company. Via dividend payments, the profits return to the faculties. ‘If a research group earns a lot from post-graduate teaching or contract research, for instance, some faculties opt to transfer that to a private limited-liability company,’ explains Hananja van Dijk, controller of the holding company. ‘It prevents government funds intended for the university’s core tasks from going to other activities.’
4: How much research does the EUR do in cooperation with the private sector?
A useful way to measure this is to count publications. This is what Robert Tijssen, senior lecturer in Science and Innovation at the Centre for Scientific and Technology Studies (CWTS) in Leiden, does. The CWTS annually draws up the Leiden Ranking, based on the publications of universities. One of the indicators is University-Industry co-publications: the percentage of a university’s publications produced in cooperation with a company.
Especially for Erasmus Magazine, Tijssen looked at all the very latest, still unpublished figures. These showed that about 7.5% of all EUR publications were written with a company. ‘That’s a fairly large amount. The EUR is among the leaders in the Netherlands.’ That cooperation with companies occurs primarily in the Health and Life Sciences, so via the Erasmus MC.
5: Why does a university do research in cooperation with companies?
Let’s start with the Erasmus MC, for that’s where most of this research takes place. That is because cooperation with industry is an absolute must, says Thijs Spigt, Director of the Technology Transfer Office (TTO) of the Erasmus MC. ‘We can’t develop products alone, because development costs a lot of money. Furthermore, the government does not permit us to focus on commercial development.’ EMC scientists come to the TTO to draw up contracts on intellectual-property rights, the transfer of knowledge and research cooperation. In 2015, the TTO saw almost 1,000 contracts with third parties, and in 2016, almost 1,200.
On an EUR-wide scale, there are still more reasons to cooperate with industry. For example, access to corporate data that normally remains internal. Furthermore, connection with the field is an advantage. Third reason is economic valorisation: selling the university’s knowledge. And then there is the independence from government expenditure, for the primary income flow is diminishing.
Professor Internal Medicine Eric Sijbrands developed a diabetes measurement station in cooperation with a tele-medicine company.
‘The idea came up in 2009, after an evaluation at the diabetes outpatient clinic. 70% of our diabetes patients speak little Dutch. With the DiabetesStation, patients can communicate in eight different languages and make their own measurements.
As a teaching hospital, we lack the funds and the knowledge to develop such an idea into a product. Via the TTO, I came into contact with 24Care. They implemented the hardware and software. What was frustrating for me as a scientist was that at a certain point, you have to shut off the flow of ideas. You need patience to complete and test the product and show that it works.
A good model for an academic clinician is thinking of something that can fund future research. The EMC uses a 40-40-20 regulation: 40% of the revenue goes to the EMC, 40% to the research group and the rest is for the inventor. It will be a while before we actually earn anything from it. In health care, medical innovations of this kind are only introduced 17 years later on average.’
6: What are the risks of contract research?
The first problem is somewhat paradoxical. Contract research not only generates, but also costs money. This happens through matching: clients want universities to contribute part of the research funding. In 2014, accountants Ernst and Young calculated how much money this involves in 131 projects at six Dutch universities. The conclusion: universities contribute €0.74 of every euro in the secondary and tertiary flows.
There is also a risk that contract research will be derailed, something that the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) already warned about in 2005. ‘The research set-up, data collection and interpretation are sometimes adjusted to obtain an outcome favourable to the client, and the publication of that outcome is sometimes prevented, delayed or adjusted to the client’s requirements.’
7: How does the university ensure scientific independence?
The KNAW recommends using a Declaration of Scientific Independence. It states, for example, that it must be possible to publish the results of scientific research, whether they are favourable to the client or not. All Dutch universities use the declaration.
The EUR goes a step further. Since 2014, all its researchers are required to sign a scientific-integrity declaration including provisions on independence in contract research. The university also uses specific contract terms and conditions. These state, for instance, that scientists work with the integrity declaration. Conducting research, providing education and publishing results must remain possible. The EMC also applies very strict standards for freedom of publication, responsibility and ethical issues, TTO Director Spigt emphasises. A partner, e.g. a pharmaceutical company, determines the inclusion criteria, for example what type of patients are tested for a medicine. ‘But everything else comes from the scientist’s research concept. A company must not be permitted to say: ‘We’d rather you use a different research question or statistics, or leave out a table.’ No, that is not negotiable.’
Derk Loorbach is the Director of DRIFT, a PLC that is a subsidiary of the EUR Holding company. DRIFT funds its research with EU and NWO grants and orders from third parties.
‘There can always be moments when there’s pressure to ignore unwelcome results. I have experienced that with research into municipal waste policies. That led to a ranking with clear differences in performance. Municipal authorities that performed less well were not happy about that. Ultimately, they did post it on their site two months later, mainly because we had also already done so.
In 2011, our first year, it really was a matter of survival. Then we accepted an order that felt like greenwashing. The project was about a large tunnel around Rotterdam. We had to improve the business case, while we actually wanted to raise questions about that tunnel. We did the order anyway. Partly for opportunistic reasons, but also because money had to come in. If you don’t receive any funds from the primary money flow, you have to get income from the secondary and tertiary flows. And if the income from research grants is disappointing, you have to accept other orders to balance the budget. There is little protection against that tension. I think the university should take some responsibility in this.’