This means that the study qualifies as ‘questionable behaviour’. The committee did not want to go so far as to call it a ‘violation of academic integrity’. The committee audited the study after it had received a complaint from the Alliance Against Expansion of MAA (Alliantie tegen Uitbreiding MAA), an action group that opposes further expansion of the airport, which is situated to the northeast of Maastricht.
The Alliance claims that the study, entitled Aviation Monitor 2020, paints a far too rosy picture of the airport’s positive impact on the creation of jobs in the region. In its first draft of the report, the EUR-affiliated scientists stated that the airport had helped create 3,300 jobs. Following complaints filed by the Alliance, this number was adjusted twice, to 1,740 in the final version of the report, mainly because the figures supplied by the airport itself on jobs created in road transport were found to be incorrect. The action group felt that this downward adjustment still constituted an overestimate. Having conducted a study of its own, the action group believes that the airport has created some 700 to 900 jobs, and so filed a complaint with EUR’s Complaints Committee.
Semblance of conflict of interest
The Committee, having established that four of the five core principles of research integrity had been violated, found that the complaint was valid. It found that the researchers were guilty of a lack of transparency, meticulousness, independence and responsibility. “All of this resulted in the semblance of a conflict of interest,” the Committee wrote in its recommendation, although it did make a point of explaining that no actual conflict of interest had been identified.
The Committee accused the researchers of a lack of transparency, particularly with regard to the revision of the employment figures. “A postscript to the report might further support the validity of the study results,” the Committee stated. By now such a postscript has been added to the Monitor. In it, the researchers explain that they used Maastricht Aachen Airport as a ‘local expert, paying insufficient attention to the fact that it might have a stake in the matter’. Due to this stake, the researchers wrote, they should not have used the airport as a source. Maastricht Aachen Airport will not be included in the upcoming edition of the Monitor.
Only a very tight budget was available for the budget. But according to the Committee, this can’t be an argument: “This [tight budget] must not negatively impact the principles as laid down in the Code of Conduct, and therefore should have caused [the researchers] to judge the situation properly before accepting the commissioned study.”
The Limburg provincial government used the EUR-affiliated researchers’ report in its lobby for an expansion of the airport. The recommendation had quite the impact. “The Limburg provincial government used this report to tell everyone: ‘look at how many jobs we’re creating!’” said Paul Sprangers of the Alliance Against Expansion of MAA. “They use jobs as their excuse for carbon dioxide emissions, nitrogen emissions and a lot of noise, and all this time the airport is receiving an annual 10 million euro subsidy, while its budget is 21 million euros. That’s ridiculous, right?”
Quality assurance policy
The Committee does not believe that there are grounds to impose disciplinary measures on the researchers involved but did order the UPT to actually implement the quality assurance policy adopted by the EUR holding company (of which Erasmus UPT is a subsidiary). This policy was adopted in 2020. The Committee also recommended that in future, the researchers refrain from accepting studies commissioned by third parties if the budget does not suffice for proper research.
Erico Pennings, the chairman of Erasmus UPT’s board, has accepted the Complaints Committee’s recommendation. In a decision made in response to the Committee’s findings, he emphasised that researchers must strictly comply with the holding company’s quality assurance policy and that a postscript must be added to the Aviation Monitor. The latter requirement has been met by now. Future editions of the Monitor must be based on more sophisticated research methods.