Rector chairman on standard contracts: We mustn’t end up with rules that can be bent

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It must be when the report is delivered that determines when university researchers can talk about the research they deliver to government agencies and ministries in connection with public sector consultancy. Not whenever the ministry has the time to read the report, according to Anders Overgaard Bjarklev, who is chairman of Universities Denmark.

2016.10.13 | Lotte Bilberg

Anders Overgaard Bjarklev is chairman of Universities Denmark and rector at the Technical University of Denmark. Photo: DTU.

Facts

The Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark are in the process of reviewing the framework agreements and standard contracts for public sector consultancy that the universities enter into with government agencies and ministries. The background for this revision includes media criticism of the confidentiality clause that is included in many contracts, and which prevents researchers from speaking about their results in a given period determined by the ministry. 

The Technical University of Denmark, The University of Copenhagen, Aarhus University and The Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS) have had the first draft of the revised agreements and contracts for consultation. The ministry is currently processing the consultation responses and will shortly send the agreements and contracts to the universities for a second round of consultation.    

The case is clear cut: Researchers employed at universities have freedom of speech, and that is the basis for agreements with government agencies and the ministry, says Anders Overgaard Bjarklev. But – and there is a but, according to the chairman of Universities Denmark:

"I can understand that special circumstances can exist where there is an agreement about when a partial result may be published, such as in relation to the timing of a patent application in the agreements we at the Technical University of Denmark enter into with industry."

He continues:

"In the same way, when it comes to a public agency, it may be reasonable for them to have the chance to compile partial results, draw conclusions and make recommendations to the political system. However, this doesn’t mean that researchers should be muzzled for months at a time. This period must be as short as possible, and we mustn’t limit the researchers' freedom of speech in relation to what they are working with."

But that was precisely what happened in the case of the government’s agricultural package. Researchers from Aarhus University could not talk about their own calculations during the political decision-making process, because they were subject to a confidentiality clause in their contract with the Ministry of Environment and Food. As I hear the researchers, the salient point is not whether they can publish their research, but rather whether they can talk about their own research at the time when it is relevant.

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"In this context we must remember that the individual research results can have a very large impact in relation to what happens. That’s also to say that if a partial result is open to misinterpretation, you can close down a whole branch because of a suspicion that may also turn out to be unfounded when you have the overall picture. That’s not something we, as researchers, can have an interest in. Not when we want to be viewed as being genuine and credible."

But if we look at the specific cases, where researchers can only comment after a political agreement has been reached due to a duty of confidentiality in a contract with a ministry. As the chairman of Universities Denmark, do you think that is alright?

"You have to be careful about commenting on cases where you don’t know the details, but I think the crucial aspect here is that we have a system that we generally have confidence in. This also means that when researchers have delivered their results to a government agency or a ministry, then it is the responsibility of that agency or ministry to convey them in a fair and accurate manner to the politicians. It’s not our job to make policy."

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No, but neither is that the issue here. The issue is whether researchers can take part in a public debate with their research results, and that there are examples where they are unable to so because they are bound by a confidentiality clause. Do you think that is alright?

"With my limited knowledge of this specific case, I find it hard to see why this kind of confidentiality clause should be present. My view is really that the most beneficial for us as a society is to have independent research that politicians – and everyone else – can listen to and use to reach their own conclusions. The politicians themselves are responsible for whatever they decide, but they must, of course, have access to all the information that is put forward. But this is something that only becomes an issue if there is someone who has doubts about whether the government agencies who convey the messages fail to do so in a responsible manner."

This is where I would like to ask you how you feel about this in the light of the latest case with Professor Frank Aarestrup’s recommendations?

"As the case is currently being looked into, I will just say at the present time that Aarestrup has been very consistent for many years in his clear recommendations to the agency. Why they have chosen to ignore him, which is how it looks, that’s something that the agency must explain."

Bjarklev emphasises in connection with this that he considers the case from The Technical University of Denmark different to that from Aarhus University:

"In that case there isn’t anyone who has muzzled Aarestrup. As I understand it, Aarestrup has been free to talk about his research throughout. I think that’s how it ought to be."

Bearing this in mind, I would like to return to the agreements and contracts that are currently under review by the ministry. Expert after expert has said that it is illegal for the ministry to attempt to include confidentiality clauses in public sector consultancy contracts. So when you say that researchers should be able to freely comment, why do you not as rectors simply refuse to sign contracts in which the ministry places limitations on researchers' freedom of speech?

"Throughout all of this we’ve said that we will safeguard researchers' right to be able to speak freely. We consider this a cornerstone of a modern society. That’s something we will continue to mean."

The ministry proposes allowing researchers to talk about their results once the delivery is completed. Who should define when something is completed?

"I would think that is when the report is submitted."

In the first draft of the revised contracts, which has been in consultation at the universities, the ministry has a different definition. For example, that it can be when they have had time to read the report in the ministry ...

"… In my opinion, a delivery is completed the moment the goods are delivered. It’s like ordering a new kitchen; it must be the day the kitchen is delivered to my address, and not the day I install it. It must be the time of delivery, as you can’t know when someone is going to finish reading something. This is where we can risk ending up with rules that can be bent, if that is to be the decisive factor."

But if the ministry proposes this regardless, will you as rectors say: No, it must be such that the day on which the report is delivered to the ministry is when our researchers can go public and say what they think needs to be said in any given case?

"I think that’s the right time to do it, and I would guess that Universities Denmark would say the same."

Autonomy at the universities

With regard to a new report on the management of the higher education degree programmes, which concludes, among other things, that the universities should be more closely managed by the Ministry of Higher Education and Science, Anders Overgaard continues:

"I would say that I'm happy we today have a system for managing the universities that ensures that there is no direct link between the minister and the boards of the universities. Looking at both the case from Aarhus University and the pending case here from The Technical University of Denmark, I hope that the politicians will be extremely pleased that no one can raise doubts about whether a guiding hand has been reaching down through the system, which could cast doubt on the university’s autonomy. We have a system where someone like Frank Aarestrup has been able to speak alone on the basis of the results that his research leads him to. What’s more, we can do this because we are independent. We are not politically managed."

The report, which is only available in Danish, was ordered in the spring by the Ministry of Higher Education and Science as part of a review of the governance framework for the institutions of higher education. The government will present the results of the governance review in the autumn. 

Translated by Peter Lambourne

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