Former professor at the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM) Henk Volberda and the RSM research team should have named Akzo Nobel, DSM, Philips, Shell and Unilever as financers of their research into the strategic value of head offices of multinationals in the Netherlands. This was the conclusion of the Netherlands Board on Research Integrity (LOWI) in an advisory report for Erasmus University, after an official complaint. Volberda was responsible for the report, Wederzijds Profijt [mutual profit], published in 2009, together with scientists Marc Baaij, Frans van den Bosch and Tom Mom. The research was used in 2018 by the Rutte III Cabinet as a scientific source in the discussion about the abolition of the dividend tax.

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LOWI issued an advisory report after an official complaint about the study was submitted earlier in 2017. The complaint was first evaluated by an internal academic integrity committee of the university, then by LOWI. It found that not everything about the procedure was in order. That is why the study had to be repeated, and Erasmus University set up a new, independent academic integrity committee. Ultimately, LOWI issued a judgement, after appeals by Volberda and complainant Vatan Hüzeir. LOWI sent the current advisory report to Erasmus University in March.

What went wrong? The Confederation of Netherlands Industry and Employers (VNO-NCW) sponsored the study into the strategic value of head offices in the Netherlands. But five members (Akzo Nobel, DSM, Philips, Shell and Unilever) provided the funding. This was not mentioned by the researchers. They also failed to mention in follow-up publications that the data derived from that sponsored research.

No violation of research integrity

For these kinds of violations, LOWI applies three qualifications: negligent conduct, culpable negligent conduct and violation of research integrity, with the last one being the severest form. Because intention could not be proven, and according to LOWI it seems apparent from the documents that it was not clear to Volberda and his fellow researchers ‘from the beginning’ that the five companies would pay for the research, there is no indication of a violation of research integrity. LOWI considers not naming the five companies to be culpable negligent conduct and classifies not stating that some of the data in the follow-up articles derived from sponsored research as negligent conduct.

Erasmus University accepts the conclusions of LOWI. Rector Magnificus Frank van der Duijn Schouten issued a declaration that the Executive Board has informed all those directly involved about the decision. The university board is learning lessons from the advisory report for the future, according to the press release. “Otherwise we consider this issue now resolved.”

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The complainant, PhD student Vatan Hüzeir, had also criticised the research methods and submitted that Volberda had not been independent. Those complaints were judged to be unfounded by LOWI. LOWI believes that the criticism of the methodology should be decided in a scientific debate and does not consider the criticism ‘an indication of the violation of the standards of academic integrity’.

Dividendbelasting

The discussion about the research exploded after a critical report by Hüzeir on behalf of the think tank Changerism about the links of the Rotterdam School of Management with the fossil fuel industry. That research revealed, for example, that initially Shell paid for the research on behalf of VNO-NCW and shared the cost with Akzo Nobel, DSM, Philips and Unilever. Hüzeir submitted an official complaint afterwards, because he did not see any signs of science’s ‘self-regulating ability’.

While this was going on, the research served to legitimise the Rutte III Cabinet’s decision to abolish the dividend tax. According to the investigative journalism platform Follow the Money, this was the only scientific source in the relevant memorandums of the Cabinet. The abolition of the dividend tax, which aimed to keep large companies in the Netherlands, resulted in fierce criticism of Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Ultimately, the decision was reversed.

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Henk Volberda, now professor at the University of Amsterdam, believes the most important conclusion to be that they conducted their research ‘completely independently’ in ‘conformance with scientific criteria’, a conclusion echoed by the other researchers. He said that he, third author of the Wederzijds Profijt report, did not know at the time of publication that the funding would be provided by Akzo Nobel, DSM, Philips, Shell and Unilever. “If we had known that the companies were paying for it, we would have happily mentioned it. It could only increase the value of the research.”

Proper check

Couldn’t he have added an amendment once it was known that the companies had paid? “With what we know now, that should have been done. That is the lesson I have learned from this. Thoroughly check with the financial administration who is actually providing the funding and state this clearly in the study.”

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The report does not mention the ‘ridiculous plan’ to abolish the dividend tax, according to Volberda. “On the contrary, the report stated that a stable fiscal policy and employing talent are essential for a good business climate. The abolition of the dividend tax could never be based on our report. The Cabinet only referred to the report to show that head offices are important for the Netherlands.”

Hüzier was not available for comment.