In its final report, the Mols Committee warns about a number of factors that ‘form a potential risk for the integrity of academic research’, but also concludes that there are no signs that companies directly influence RSM’s education and research programmes. Dean Steef van de Velde: “You can never completely rule out integrity risks, but we hope to limit them as far as possible by working toward greater transparency.”
What’s your opinion of the report?
“It’s good that it exonerates us from the main charge: that the private sector supposedly influences our research and curricula. The committee is very clear on this point: this isn’t the case. In addition, the report contains a lot of recommendations to reduce risks when it comes to safeguarding scientific integrity. A few of these issues turned out to be blind spots for us, so it’s nice to have a third party’s perspective.”
Which issues were blind spots for RSM?
“We misjudged the status of consultancy activities on behalf of various limited liability companies (BVs) set up by the university. We used to see this as part of our regular workday. But the committee explained to us that they are actually ancillary activities. We now follow the rule that whenever you work outside the faculty, this is recorded as an ancillary activity – even when it’s at a university BV. In addition, our register for ancillary activities wasn’t entirely up to date, but we’ve remedied this by now.”
Last year you didn’t pull your punches when the Changerism think tank published a critical report about RSM’s relationship with the fossil fuels industry. You called this report ‘tendentious, biased and [containing] various factual errors’. Nevertheless, the committee has reached a number of similar conclusions – about diffuse boundaries between public and private activities, and a lack of transparency.
“That’s why we’ve made a start on creating a new corporate register. This register will record every relationship we have with companies with which we enter into an agreement. Who is the other contract party; what is the nature of the agreement; what’s the contract term? This is a recommendation made by Changerism that we have adopted. But, I’d like to reiterate: the main claim made against RSM was that we weren’t independent. That is a very serious accusation, because scientific integrity is of crucial importance to us.”
Some relationships with the private sector aren’t necessarily covered in a contract.
“Naturally, we have all sorts of contacts with companies, at a variety of levels. But we’ve decided to limit the corporate register to recording contracts. Otherwise, a register like that would also have to include theses and internships. At which point you can’t see the forest for the trees, and I don’t believe this information is actually relevant for outsiders. It’s limited to relationships that involve a physical contract between a researcher and a third party.”
Another point for improvement: the committee came across a lot of contracts with non-disclosure clauses. Contracts that bar the researcher from publishing results within a specified period or even publishing the results at all. The committee feels very uncomfortable with full embargos. Why does your faculty enter into this kind of contract?
“Sometimes this has to do with the sensitivity of the data. Companies are afraid of their information being left out on the street, so they require their data or the interviewees to be anonymised. We currently screen each contract beforehand and are working on a model agreement. This means that our future contracts will no longer contain any problematic non-disclosure clauses.
“But to be honest, I can’t imagine that we have entered into any agreements that rule out publication entirely. A researcher has no interest whatsoever in performing research that he or she won’t be able to publish.”
This is the case at the Holding, the university’s commercial branch.
“But that’s consultancy. Within our faculty, we’re talking about contract research that researchers can use as a base for academic studies.”
The committee is critical of these consultancy activities – particularly those undertaken within the Holding. They don’t always adhere to the scientific code of conduct. Shouldn’t the rules of conduct that relate to scientific integrity also apply when a researcher works as a consultant?
“The report prompts us to take another look at which consultancy work we should or shouldn’t take on. Consultancy activities within the Holding’s operating companies are a somewhat sensitive area. Some operating companies work with their own team. But as soon as any academic staff members are engaged, everything needs to be as transparent as possible. Consultancy activities under the Holding’s aegis take place in a commercial context, while our staff are appointed by a public organisation. So we need to be clear about the lay of the land.”
The committee also warns about ‘side letters’ – letters that contain supplementary agreements as an addendum to the original contract – and interviews in which clients pressure the researcher in some way. Aren’t these precisely the kinds of situations that put academic independence at risk?
“Yes, that is one of the risks. If you read the report carefully, each time round the authors say: ‘This is possible; it could go this way, or that way.’ You can never completely rule out risks, but we hope to limit them as far as possible. Transparency helps in this context, so we need to carefully record which agreements we enter into with companies. The committee also wrote: ‘Side letters aren’t allowed, but we didn’t find any’. Which is correct, since we don’t have any.”
In a lot of cases, the situation is less clear-cut. A client may say in the course of the study: “Do you really need to phrase your conclusion that harshly?” Or: “Could you focus a bit more on this point in your preface?” It can be difficult for individual researchers to withstand that kind of pressure. How do you support your staff in these situations?
“We strive to be completely independent. This means that any time we plan to do research that is subject to these risks, we need to closely consider whether we should actually want to perform it in the first place. A client always has an interest, and you need to minimise the risk of your acquiescing to this interest as far as possible.”
The committee was concerned about the culture within the faculty. The younger staff members in particular don’t feel at liberty to challenge the relative autonomy of some professors.
“Those aren’t the exact words of the report. Once again, the authors note that it’s a possibility. And they also write that we don’t differ from other faculties or universities in that respect. We already acknowledged this risk at an earlier point. That’s why we asked PricewaterhouseCoopers to look into our faculty culture. This study yielded all sorts of recommendations. Assigning a mentor to junior staff members, for example. They could freely discuss dilemmas they run into with this mentor. We have installed a number of confidential counsellors and made various other arrangements. What the committee’s saying is: ‘Consolidate these arrangements’.”
The PwC study was performed in 2013, in the wake of the fraud allegations against RSM professor Dirk Smeesters. Do you believe all the recommendations have presently been implemented?
“Most of them. One particularly important recommendation was to give careful thought to our common purpose. We ended up creating an entirely new mission – ‘a force for positive change’ – that we are very proud of and that enjoys wide support within the faculty. Culture is about more than just rules. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. It’s about how you treat each other, and this is mainly determined by the tone set by management. I believe this mission has proven very instrumental in creating an atmosphere of openness and constructive criticism.”
It becomes clear from interviews with staff members that the ‘relative autonomy of – specifically senior – professors could contribute to a culture in which staff members no longer feel free to share their views on scientific integrity’, according to the Mols Committee. Were you unsettled by this comment on the culture within RSM?
“No. Once again, the authors wrote that it could contribute. And that’s a risk found in any organisation. I believe we actually play a pioneering role in this respect: we acknowledged these risks at an earlier stage, set to work on them, and are working to this day to improve matters even further.”
The committee also proved critical of RSM’s organisational structure. On the one hand, you have a state-funded faculty; on the other, commercial activities with an RSM BV and operating companies within the EUR Holding. Some researchers actually work for all three. As a result, it isn’t always clear who bears responsibility for what. Do you agree?
“I can imagine that outsiders find it difficult to get a clear picture. The people within RSM don’t have a problem, but generally speaking, it’s a complex arrangement. That’s why we’ll be appointing a new committee who can advise us – and the university as a whole – on a more transparent and effective set-up. Naturally, we are responsible for keeping public and private activities strictly separate. This distinction needs to be very clear – including for the outside world.”
You serve as both the dean of RSM and the Chair of the Supervisory Board of RSM BV. Could you explain to us what’s going on here exactly?
“Normally, one of the faculty professors serves on the Supervisory Board. He or she monitors the company’s activities on behalf of the faculty and safeguards scientific integrity. Two supervisory directors recently stepped down and we’ve had some difficulty finding their successors. That’s why, for the time being, I’ve joined the Board as Acting Chair. But this is not a desirable situation, since theoretically, I could use this position to get my way. That’s why we are doing our best to find an outside Chair as soon as possible.”
As the dean, don’t you indirectly manage the BV too?
“No, this authority lies with the statutory directors. They are responsible for the company’s day-to-day operations. And they are accountable to the Supervisory Board. The statutory directors do attend the meetings of the faculty management team as listeners.”
“Well, it has actually been arranged this way to safeguard scientific integrity. That’s why you need academic staff in this BV.”
You will be accounting to EUR’s Executive Board on 1 January. Which concrete changes do you expect to report at that time?
“The main point will be changes in the relationship between the faculty and the operating companies of EUR Holding BV – specifically in the area of consultancy. This has really been a blind spot for us. We’ve never seen this as an ancillary activity, but simply as part of our regular job responsibilities. We will henceforth be recording this work as ancillary activities.”
Do you get the feeling that RSM is under disproportionate scrutiny?
“Well, don’t forget that we have a very strong reputation. And occasionally, it does feel as if we catch a lot of wind compared to other faculties. We know that people keep a close eye on what we do, which is exactly why we need to be very transparent. So any time we get advice on how to improve something, we make work of it straight away. In fact, that’s our mind-set too – we call it ‘continuous improvement’. This constant drive to improve things is in our blood.”