Underwhelming attendance at conference on freedom of research at Aarhus University

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Only about 40 people attended the conference on freedom of research that was held on January 28 in the Lakeside Lecture Theatres. Including the seven presenters invited to speak on the subject.

2019.01.29 | Lotte Bilberg

Foto: Melissa Bach Yildirim.

Translation: Lenore Messick.

Facts

In August, 4,379 researchers at AU received a questionnaire in connection with a survey of freedom of research at AU. 1,488 researchers (34%) chose to participate in the survey, which was performed by the Danish Centre for Social Science Research (VIVE).

VIVE also conducted a series of interviews with managers in order to illuminate their role in relation to the issue.

Highlights from the report

Researchers who work for ministries or with income-generating activities are at greater risk of being exposed to pressure than other researchers.

Researchers have the same risk of being exposed to pressure regardless of whether they are professors, associate professors or assistant professors. And in this regard, it makes no difference whether a researcher is a member of permanent staff or more loosely affiliated with AU.

And neither gender nor age influence one’s risk of getting squeezed between the interests of impartial scientific inquiry and the interests of stakeholders. However, the survey does indicate that researchers who have received their PhD within the last five years are exposed to a greater risk of pressure to change their results.

Who participated in the survey? 

All researchers at AU were offered a chance to take the survey. Just over one in three (34%) chose to participate. Both sexes and all age groups are represented. But some groups are overrepresented relative to the general researcher population at AU.

This applies to researchers who are: 

  • Over the age of 40
  • heads of department, professors or associate professors
  • come from Arts or Aarhus BSS

But although VIVE notes that there are imbalances in the responses received, several analyses of participation bias ultimately indicated that non-response along several parameters only have a minor influence on the representativeness of the study. 

“A survey of freedom of research in relation to publication on the Aarhus University” (in Danish)

 

“Why do you think so few people turned up for the conference?” one participant asked another over coffee and brownies during the break. The conference on freedom of research at AU took place last Monday in the Lakeside Lecture Theatres.  

And she wasn’t the only person who was taken aback by the low attendance figures. Especially considering that the conference was held in the wake of an independent report on a questionnaire survey that revealed that 190 of the participating researchers have experienced threats to their academic integrity in the past five years: pressure to change research findings, or to postpone or even drop their publication. 

But not only the attendance figures were underwhelming. Politicians were also conspicuous by their absence – in any case, in his opening remarks Rector Brian Bech Nielsen made it clear that none of the politicians who had been invited to attend had been able to make time in their schedules.

Researchers under pressure

By way of introduction, Senior Researcher Rasmus Højbjerg Jacobsen from VIVE - the Danish Center for Social Science Research, which performed the survey at AU, outlined the main conclusions of the survey (see fact box). He also mentioned that there had been a number of requests for more detailed information about attempts to pressure researchers at particular departments. But as he explained, this information would not be made available, out of a concern to protect respondent anonymity – as there were relatively few responses from each of AU’s many departments.

Jacobsen also specified that the pressure the researchers in the survey described should be understood as inappropriate pressure - as opposed, for example, to the kinds of disagreement that can arise in scientific debates about the postponement of publication on the grounds of ‘immature’ research data. 

“What we see here is pressure on freedom of research, which is also apparent from the examples the researchers cited in the qualitative interviews,” Jacobsen explained.

Researchers must avoid self-incrimination

The steering committee that headed the survey at AU included the chairs of the academic councils. And Professor Marit-Solveig Seidenkrantz, who chairs the Academic Council at ST, addressed another question that most of the readers of the report have most likely asked themselves:  How many of the researchers who responded that they have been pressured have actually compromised their academic integrity?

Seidenkrantz explained that researchers were not asked to answer that question, because a positive answer would be the same as admitting to unlawful activity. 

No retreat to the ivory tower

Despite the attempts to limit their freedom of research, many of the researchers who participated in the survey expressed a continued interest in working with external partners and stakeholders – ministries, agencies or companies – in connection with commissioned research projects or contracts. In other words, they don’t feel that the solution is to retreat to the ivory tower. 

“But they do advocate insisting on the codes of practice for administering freedom of research. And even though the researchers acknowledge that the management supports them, there are areas in which the results indicate that the researchers would like more support,” explained Jacobsen about the VIVE study. 

He also noted that the participating researchers expressed a desire for greater openness about the pressure they are subjected to from different quarters. 

“But they’re not interested in becoming a case themselves,” Jacobsen noted. 

Freedom to choose your project, your  method – and stand by your conclusions

In his presentation, Rector Bech Nielsen reflected on the impossibility of absolute freedom of research in the real world. Funding for research is not unlimited, and what is more, the rector asserted, researchers would be insufficiently willing to listen to voices from the outside if they only had to concern themselves with what they personally were most interested in working on within their fields. 

“On the other hand, there is freedom to choose your project and your method. And there is transparency when it’s time to present your findings and to stand by your conclusions and refuse to bow to pressure,” the rector confirmed. 

He continued:

“And we’re not quite good enough at that yet at AU.” 

The rector went on to explain that the management will discuss how it can contribute to rectifying the situation with the academic councils over the course of the spring. 

He also said that the senior management team has decided that a so-called ‘research ambassador’ will be appointed at each of the four faculties whom researchers can draw on for advice and guidance on how to conduct themselves when they find themselves dealing with attempts to compromise their research freedom, either from outside or within the university.

“The research ambassadors will be shielded from reprisals from management, and will be required to compose an anonymous report every year that will be submitted to the academic councils and the Research Practice Committee. The Research Practice Committee will then forward the report to the senior management team and the board,” the rector explained. 

In addition, courses on the responsible conduct of research will be offered at all of the faculties, and in future it will be possible for everyone to report cases to the Research Practice Committee. 

Support for science advice

One of the rector’s main point was that safeguarding freedom of research is not just a matter for the universities, and on those grounds he expressed regret that none of the invited politicians had been able to find the time to participate in the conference. 

At the same time, he stressed that he supports the current arrangement by which the universities are responsible for providing science advice to agencies and ministries. And he chose to bring up the issue in this context because most of the researchers who have been in the media spotlight in connection with research freedom are from the former governmental research institutions (most of the Danish governmental research institutions were merged with the universities in 2006-2007, ed.). What is more, some politicians have questioned these researchers’ academic integrity.  

Intolerable journalists chasing a quick story

At the conference, Senior Adviser Gitte Blicher-Mathiesen from the Department of Bioscience’s Silkeborg campus spoke about her experiences as a researcher dealing with external pressure. Her main point was that the only pressure she finds problematic comes from journalists – 

journalists chasing a quick story who lack the qualifications to understand the complex data behind the science advice that scientists in Foulum provide to the Danish agencies and ministries. And which these scientists have to be able to defend in a minefield of conflicting interests. She described the pressure from journalists as “intolerable”. 

On the other hand, Blicher-Mathiesen considers engaging in ongoing dialogue with agencies or ministries to be an advantage, because it contributes to a deeper understanding of the research-based advice that scientists provide. 

Unambiguous guidelines, please!

Peter Munk Christiansen, head of the Department of Political Science, started his talk by confirming that external parties have the opinions about the research performed at the universities. But that the senior management team must stand firm when it comes to attempts to influence researchers. 

“Even if we end up losing a contract once in a while,” as Christiansen put it. 

He also addressed the pressure from internal sources that was revealed by the survey. And which comes from both managers and colleagues. With regard to managers, he explained that he keeps his ear to the ground about this issue when he holds SDD dialogues with the department’s 80 postdocs. 

And with regard to colleagues, Christiansen explained that as department head, he sometimes pays visits to researchers with long and illustrious CVs to remind them of the benefits of making room for others – and thus of giving junior researchers needed scope to develop their talents.

In addition, he expressed his approval of the new initiative to appoint research ambassadors at the faculties. But in the same breath, he pointed out that there will be a considerable distance between these ambassadors and the researchers. 

He concluded his talk by calling on the rector and the rest of the senior management team to create strong defences to safeguard freedom of research at AU:

“You have to make unambiguous guidelines that must apply to the entire management.”

A dangerous indifference to this state of affairs

Emeritus Professor Heine Andersen from the University of Copenhagen was one of the external speakers at the conference. Andersen has worked with the issue of the state of freedom of research at Danish universities for many years. And in late 2017, he published a book on the subject entitled Forskningsfrihed – ideal og virkelighed(Freedom of research – ideal and reality). 

And it was thanks to his stubborn persistence that the media was able to reveal that some researchers have been forced to sign illegal non-disclosure agreements that forbid them from publicising their research findings for a certain period of time.  

As a veteran researcher in this field, Andersen was not at all surprised that 16% of the researchers who participated in the survey at AU have been exposed to inappropriate pressure. And he was surprised that the findings of the survey from AU had not attracted greater public outcry.

On the other hand, Andersen did find it surprising that some of this pressure comes from management, as this wasn’t identified as an issue by the researchers he discusses in his book on freedom of research.

Andersen praised the senior management team for taking the initiative to commission the survey. And he pointed out that he believes that the pressure on freedom of research at AU is neither greater or less than at the other Danish universities. And in that larger context, he concluded, the report is an important step in the ongoing investigation and discussion of freedom of research at the universities. 

As he put it:

“What is shows is precisely that these aren’t isolated incidents. But that the pressure is more systematic.” 

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Revised 18.10.2019