People have a strong faith in science, according to a report published by the Rathenau Institute this summer, but this faith is significantly reduced when researchers work on the government’s behalf. This is ‘a pity to read’, writes the Minister in her letter to the House of Representatives today: “Researchers deserve the public’s trust”.
But do politicians and officials also deserve this trust? NRC Handelsblad doesn’t think so. “Government bridles science”, was a recent headline in the newspaper about the unwanted pressure experienced by researchers.
It definitely isn’t the first time scientists have sounded the alarm about this problem. Last year, for example, there was a commotion when it became clear that WODC, a research bureau affiliated with the Ministry of Justice, was unable to work independently. In the case of a number of studies, including one about the legalisation of cannabis growing, the bureau’s recommendations had actually been determined beforehand. And there are other examples besides.
“Let me be clear: steering for specific research results is fundamentally wrong,” says Van Engelshoven. “The researcher needs to work from a position of security and independence, and the client should never push for specific research findings – even in cases where the conclusions are less favourable in a political and social context.”
And this point is also included in the Code of Conduct for Integrity in the Central Public Administration, says the Minister. That’s true, although the Code also says: “If you are acting in a commissioning role, there will always be a certain degree of influencing of aspects of the performed research.”
As chance would have it, they recently published a new code of conduct for academic research. Van Engelshoven is filled with praise for this new document and wants to know which requirements government authorities set for researchers: do they stand up to scrutiny? The authors of the code of conduct will be vetting the government’s terms and conditions at the Minister’s request. “Based on this assessment, we can then determine whether any changes need to be made.”
Indeed, looking through these terms and conditions there are a few points that at the very least appear at odds with strictly independent research – such as all sorts of provisions regarding confidentiality and intellectual property rights.
And the model contracts also include a few curious stipulations. For example, while the researcher is allowed to use the original findings as a base for more in-depth research, “the contractor is not allowed to act against the interests of the Commissioning Party. In cases of doubt, the Contractor should consult beforehand with the Commissioning Party.” And this commissioning party is the government.