Researchers are also under pressure from their own managers

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Not all attempts to influence on researchers come from political interests. Sometimes the pressure comes from within the university: researchers working in politically sensitive fields face attempts to influence their work from their own managers. This is the conclusion of a survey of 5,232 Danish researchers performed in January 2018.

2018.02.22 | Lotte Bilberg

Rector Bech Nielsen expects that an investigation of the extent to which researchers at AU feel internal or external pressure will take some time, among other reasons because he believes involving the academic councils in the discussion is important. Nonetheless, the rector expects the investigation to produce results in the course of the year. Photo: Lars Kruse.

The article series on freedom of research published in the national newspaper Politiken recently did not address researchers’ claims that their own managers exert pressure on them. Omnibus has been given permission to cover this aspect of the survey.

Yes, one or more times

Researchers who participated in the survey were asked to answer the question “In connection with research on a politically sensitive topic, have you ever been subject to pressure by management at your own place of work?” 

“Yes, one or more times,” responded 242 researchers. 158 of the 242 researchers specify that they experienced pressure once, while 84 researchers indicate that they have experienced pressure on multiple occasions. The 242 researchers who answered that they had experienced pressure from their managers correspond to 4.6 per cent of the 5,232 researchers who answered the question.

In connection with research on a politically sensitive topic, have you ever experienced pressure from the management at your home institution?

Yes, once (158 respondents) 3 %. Yes, multiple times (84 respondents) 1.6 %. Do not know (83 respondents) 1.6 %. I have not done research on a topic which might be considered politically sensitive (2,115 respondents) 40.4 %. No (2,742 respondents) 52.4 %. Do not wish to respond (50 respondents) 1 %.

5,232 researchers participated in the survey in 2018. Source: Politiken Research. Graphics: Astrid Reitzel

Cause for concern

Rector Brian Bech Nielsen finds the result of the survey concerning. He stresses that management is responsible for ensuring that researchers are able to perform their research in accordance with the principles of freedom of research without encountering internal barriers in the form of pressure from management

Bech Nielsen also explains that in light of the most recent statistics on pressure from management, he is even more committed to his recent decision to carry out an internal investigation of the extent of managerial pressure on researchers at Aarhus University, a decision which was announced in a statement on 2 February in response to the survey of research freedom covered on the same day in Politiken (read the statement at the end of the article).

The actions of management must also be examined

You have announced that you want an investigation of the extent of political pressure on researchers at AU. In light of what we see here, will the senior management team also commission an investigation of the extent of pressure from managers at the university?

“I consider that an absolutely natural dimension of the investigation. I have said that managers must safeguard researchers from external pressure. And of course, it follows that we as managers must not put unreasonable pressure on them internally.

The 1,200 researchers who indicated that they work with scientific advice to government were asked additional specific questions by Politiken Research. Are you going to make sure that this is also incorporated into the design of the survey which will be performed internally at AU?

“What I’m going to do is engage in dialogue internally so we can figure out how to design a survey which gives us an overview of the extent of the problem. But also of the nature of the problem, because as I see it, the most important thing is to figure out how we solve this. But we haven’t decided how we’re going to go about it yet.”

A lot of the cases which have gotten attention in the media – most recently the case here at AU – involve researchers whose job is to provide scientific advice to government. And that’s why I’m asking whether AU’s senior management intends to ask specifically about whether and how these researchers experience pressure?

“Let me put it this way – we’re not going to ask questions which don’t get to the truth of the matter,” the rector answers.

Time pressure - or?

The rector also notes that he does not find the nature of the pressure referred to in the survey entirely clear.

“Researchers who work with scientific advice to government often experience time pressure, which is one of the conditions they work under. And if researchers can’t manage to complete the task, they have to do as much as they can in the given situation – while at the same time clearly stating the uncertainties – or flaws – they see in their reporting. But if the survey is referring to management pressuring researchers to change their conclusions, so that they are forced to compromise their scientific integrity, then we’re seeing something completely unacceptable.”

Since the survey isn’t about stress, isn’t is reasonable to assume that the pressure referred to is pressure from management which researchers perceive as an attempt to compromise their scientific integrity?

“I can’t answer that question. But I do know from experience that how questions are posed has a major influence on the outcome of a survey,” says Bech Nielsen, who stresses that his statement should not be misunderstood as an attempt to evade the problem.

“We draw the line at political pressure and situations in which changes are made in researchers’ conclusions and the like. Researchers must not compromise their scientific integrity. And it goes without saying that we must not exercise that kind of pressure internally.”

Are you thinking that the survey will be performed by someone external? 

“It has to be carried out in a way which guarantees that the results can be trusted. But to be entirely honest, I don’t want to comment on how we’re going to do it, because that’s something we need to discuss very thoroughly with the research and teaching programmes first.”

Take it to your manager’s manager

Minister for Higher Education and Science Søren Pind (Liberal Party) has also aired his views in the debate on freedom of research. In an article in Omnibus, for example, he expressed a belief that researchers themselves are responsible for resisting pressure. Bech Nielsen does not entirely agree with the minister:

READ MORE: Søren Pind: Researchers are responsible for resisting intimidation

“I do agree with the minister’s point of view that researchers have a responsibility if they are experiencing pressure. After all, we as managers have to know about a problem before we can act to address it.”

I think it’s important that the manager who’s in a position to do something about it is informed as well if someone feels that they’re being pressured, because otherwise it’s very difficult to act in regard to this issue.”

Where should researchers go if they consider the management to be part of the problem?

“Then you take the issue to the next manager in the chain of command – or to your union representative. Perhaps there’s a need for an extra body to consider these cases? We will address that question in the dialogue we’re going to have with the research and teaching programmes.

‘Yes, Minister’...but...

In Politiken, Pind stated that the universities’ senior management teams ought to take stock of the survey. In return, Bech Nielsen has a challenge for the minister: 

“I agree, and we are definitely ready to tackle the issue. But the subject of the article was political pressure, after all. So I also think it would be appropriate for Søren Pind to take stock of his own organisation -and that of his fellow ministers– and to look at whether there’s something there as well which he ought to discuss with various government agencies. He should simply consider this a friendly suggestion; in equal partnerships, both parties examine both sides to see if there’s anything that needs to be straightened out.”

Translated by Lenore Messick


FACTS

In the period 15-24 January 2018, Politiken Research performed an electronic survey of approx. 19,000 researchers at the Danish universities and the research institutions KORA (the Danish Institute for Local and Regional Government Research) and SFI (the Danish National Centre for Social Research). Over 5,000 researchers participated in the survey.

The results of the survey referred to in this article are published by agreement with Politiken.


FACTS

Rector Brian Bech Nielsen’s statement, published on au.dk on 2 February, the same day on which the results of the researcher survey were published in Politiken:

Aarhus University will investigate political pressure on researchers

“According to a survey carried out by the national newspaper Politiken, about seven per cent of  researchers in Denmark have experienced political pressure in connection with public sector research consultancy. The rector finds this completely unacceptable, and he has decided to investigate the extent of the problem at Aarhus University.

According to an article in Politiken today, some of the researchers who have worked with public sector research consultancy have felt themselves to be under external political pressure.

True, these researchers constitute a minority: 7.4 per cent of 1,200 responses. But that is 7.4 per cent too many.

Let me make this perfectly clear: Before all else, researchers must defend their scientific integrity. And if they feel that they are being pressured to do otherwise, we have to get this out in the open.

And so to begin with, I have decided to initiate an investigation of the extent of the problem at our own university.

Next, we must get a dialogue started which can produce concrete initiatives on the best way fo researchers to handle situations like that, and specifically what researchers should do to raise the alarm.

Reporting such cases to management will always be an option, and I consider defending researchers against external pressure to be an extremely important task for university managers.

Naturally, this presupposes that the relevant manager is informed about the problem.

The Politiken survey seems to indicate that this does not always happen.

One extra option might be making use of some of our other existing channels to lodge complaints about pressure on scientific integrity. If it turns out that such a system is needed, its establishment must be based on debate within the university’s established bodies and in the broader university community.

I would like to emphasise that it is both legitimate and to be expected that special interest organisations and our academic peers subject our work to thorough review. We must be prepared to defend the quality of our work, and we must accept that others subject our methods and conclusions to critique. If we have made errors, they must be corrected. And if we change our position, we must acknowledge it. If we are right, we must hold our ground.

But it’s one thing to be under purely scientific pressure to deliver the best possible research. We can and must be able to handle that pressure – this is a condition of life at the university. Political pressure is something else entirely. That is something we must not accept. We fully acknowledge that we have no influence on the political processes which can unfold in the wake of a public sector consultancy project – but we must resist any attempts to compromise our scientific integrity. 

In Politiken today, our minister states that investigating the extent of the problems and bringing them into the light where they can be discussed openly is a task for the universities’ senior management teams. I agree completely. And we are prepared to contribute to that. On the other hand, I would also have liked to see him signal to the civil service and the ministries that a serious discussion of the extent of the problem, as well as possible solutions, should take place here as well.

The development of policy on the background of solid scientific knowledge is a strength for a democratic society. For this reason, the political system also has an interest in ensuring trust in the integrity of research – and researchers.

Translated by Lenore Messick


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Søren Pind: Researchers are responsible for resisting intimidation


 

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