Is the RUG becoming Coca-Cola University?

A good relationship with the business world is of great importance for the RUG, which is why the university will pursue closer connections with industry. That was the big news during the opening of academic year speech by rector magnificus Elmer Sterken. University instructor Sandra Beckerman and PhD candidate Daan Brandenbarg disagree with this new direction: ‘The RUG cannot become Coca-Cola University.’

We are not disappointed – we are angry. Very angry. While evidence that intimate collaborations between universities and businesses is not in the interest of research piles up, and society, the economy and sources within and outside of academia are resistant to the commercialisation of the sciences, the University of Groningen has chosen to become the Business University of Groningen.

Rector magnificus Elmer Sterken has made it clear that the RUG will be working even more closely with businesses; a dean of industry relations has been officially appointed. Our university cannot become Coca-Cola University, Shell University or FrieslandCampina University. To the contrary, we would prefer that the university reconsider their chummy connections with businesses and, together with students and staff, think long and hard about the future of the university and research.

The appeal is understandable. Businesses know better than the government what the big issues are. They can inspire universities to ask the right questions. Together, they can find the best answers, and the businesses can ensure that these scientific breakthroughs are applied for the greater good of humanity.

And they all lived happily ever after. Or did they?

No! Alas, warm relations with industry players result neither in better questions nor in better answers.

Risks

First and foremost, we will address the matter of whether universities and the government are so lacking in vision that they have to go to businesses to find the right research topics. No. Businesses have a hard time taking big risks. The initial phase of developing a new product is especially precarious, expensive and risky. Businesses prefer to keep risk to themselves low and tend to invest in a later phase of development or at the point of making minor changes to an existing product. But governments are willing to take that risk. Nearly 90 per cent of recent scientific breakthroughs, according to research by Mariana Mazzucato, are financed with government money.

Because the Dutch government is choosing for shorter and more applied research, especially in the top sectors, and is investing too little in long-term, fundamental and independent research across the scientific spectrum, research is stagnating. It is a myth that businesses somehow pose the core questions about society’s problems. It was not an honorary RUG professorship sponsored by Shell that proposed to investigate at which productivity level of gas extraction that seismic activity in Groningen would decrease.

Then there is the matter of whether the collaborations with businesses can actually lead to better answers. No. Meta analyses by Probst, et. al. (2015), and Lundh, et. al. (2012) into surgical intervention (1,934 articles) and medications and treatments (48 articles) come to one conclusion: sponsored research more often yields positive results.

‘We at Toilet Duck…’

Too often, it seems that scientific conclusions amount to advertising for the client. ‘We at Toilet Duck recommend Toilet Duck.’ We at Dentaid recommend Dentaid – that was a headline in NRC in 2013. Two RUG professors stated in a scientific article that Dentaid was the best mouthwash, but neglected to mention that they both had a financial stake in Dentaid. Toilet Duck science damages the trustworthiness of – and trust in – the research.

Working together with businesses does not result in better questions or better answers, leads to stagnating research and abnormal, tainted or even outright bought science is becoming increasingly normal.

Therefore, we plead for a university-wide discussion about the future of the RUG. Our proposal: immediately cut ties with industry. Choose long-term, fundamental and independent research in all faculties. Call for the government to increase direct funding. Provide more permanent contracts for researchers to ensure that they are better able to stand up against the pressures of sponsored research.

Sandra Beckerman, PhD, university instructor (and Socialist Party candidate for the Lower House)
Daan Brandenbarg, PhD (and chairperson of the Socialist Party in Groningen)

Nederlands

14 September 2016 | 27-10-2016, 10:04