Stand together! The university’s management teams must stand together to safeguard freedom of research

Two current cases show the importance of the university managements standing together to safeguard freedom of research and the unhindered right of researchers to speak about their research. This is the view of Public Administration Consultant Oluf Jørgensen. He also emphasises that this is particularly true at a time when there is a tendency for increasing secretiveness at agencies and ministries. At the same time, public authorities are under considerable pressure from powerful special interest organisations, such as the Danish Agriculture and Food Council, according to Professor Peter Munk Christiansen, who carries out research into political lobbying.

[Translate to English:] Oluf Jørgensen, offentlighedsrådgiver og forskningschef emeritus ved Danmarks Medie- og Journalist (DMJX). Foto: Anders Hviid/DMJX
[Translate to English:] Peter Munk Christiansen, professor ved Institut for Statskundskab på AU og ekspert i politisk lobbyisme. Foto: Maria Randima
[Translate to English:] Jørgen E. Olesen, professor i agroøkologi ved Institut for Agroøkologi på AU. Foto: Lars Kruse

"It’s important that the universities stand together to safeguard freedom of research. Conditions that restrict the right of the universities and researchers to publish completed research results should be flatly rejected. Otherwise the universities will be dragged into administrative and political-tactical considerations." 

This is the view of Lawyer Oluf Jørgensen, who is director of research emeritus at the Danish School of Media and journalist (DMJX) and one of Denmark’s leading experts on public administration. Today he acts as a public administration consultant affiliated with DMJX.

Jørgensen continues:

"Two current cases show how badly things can go. Without public access to information about research results, politicians become completely dependent on the presentations they receive from senior civil servants. Unfortunately, the two current cases reflect a trend toward secretiveness at ministries and government agencies. This secretiveness weakens the democratic debate and harms the quality of the decisions taken."

Minister wants an explanation

One of the two cases which Oluf Jørgensen refers to is the ongoing case in which the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration – and, as became apparent in a recent radio programme, also the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark – systematically neglected to pass on recommendations for tackling the multi-resistant swine bacteria MRSA CC398, which they received from Professor Frank Aarestrup from the Technical University of Denmark. 

This emerged in a documentary sent on Danish television channel DR1 last Sunday (in Danish). Professor Frank Aarestrup is head of the research group for Genomic Epidemiology under the Technical University of Denmark’s National Food Institute. Research is aimed at the correlations between the use of antibiotics in animals and the health consequences for people worldwide.

The work carried out by Aarestrup and his research group has led to the National Food Institute being a reference centre for both the WHO and the European Commission within the area of antibiotic resistance in bacteria from animals and food.

As the documentary showed, the management of the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration chose to delete the recommendations made by the internationally recognised researcher Aarestrup, allegedly to accommodate a special interest organisation, The Danish Agriculture & Food Council. This then meant that information was withheld from politicians which could have had crucial significance for tackling MRSA CC398 in Danish pig herds.

The special interest organisation wanted to avoid Aarestrup’s recommendations being followed, as it could mean that the breeders who provide pigs for the rest of the Danish agriculture sector could end up with a “MRSA label". The organisation argued that it feared the consequences that such a label would have for trade, as shown by an internal email correspondence between the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration and the Danish Agriculture & Food Council, which is quoted in the programme.

Under strong pressure

Professor Peter Munk Christiansen from the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University has spent 25 years researching special interest organisations and political lobbying. On the specific example of lobbying he says:

"Ministries and government agencies are under intense pressure from powerful special interest organisations such as the Danish Agriculture & Food Council, who wish to exert influence. And it is entirely legitimate for the Danish Agriculture and Food Council to seek to represent what the organisation believes is the interests of its members and the agricultural sector. Because, of course, that’s what the organisation is there for. You can always discuss whether the organisation has come up with too much of a short-term strategy. What if there was actually a problem with what they call the stop for breeding? And that they do not look towards more long-term interests."

Claus Fertin, Director of the Danish Pig Research Centre under the Danish Agriculture and Food Council, wrote the following in a statement to the Ritzau news agency in connection with the television documentary:

"There is nothing mysterious in our cooperation as a special interest organisation with the relevant government agencies. We provide input and contribute knowledge. This is how we do things in Denmark, and this does not only apply to our industry. However, we do not take the decisions. We cannot force the public sector authorities to do what the Danish Agriculture and Food Council wants. We follow the rules and the laws that the authorities put in place."

On the question of whether the Danish Agriculture & Food Council merely has had the opportunity to seek influence like any other special interest organisation, as Director Claus Fertin claims in his statement, Peter Munk Christiansen says:

"No, not every organisation is allowed access to government agencies and ministries. Powerful special interest organisations like the Danish Agriculture & Food Council have privileged access, which can also be seen by the way in which the special interest organisation is often very closely involved in the political decision-making process, for example as is also the case with the Confederation of Danish Industry in the business area or the large trade unions in the labour market area."

The professor continues:

"On the one hand you can say that politicians involving special interest organisation before they make decisions helps to qualify the political process. Politicians also have the advantage that their decisions enjoy greater support when the organisations are involved in the process. But on the other hand, with this system we have the danger that some of the big special interest organisations become too privileged and that they gain too much influence on the politicians' decisions."

Is it your assessment that this is what has happened in this case?

"I’ve only followed the story via the media, so I don’t have enough knowledge of the process to comment on it." 

Stop saying this – or say something else

The television documentary also showed that the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration attempted to put pressure on the then head of Frank Aarestrup’s department, Jørgen Schlundt. The Veterinary and Food Administration was so dissatisfied with Aarestrup's recommendations that Jørgen Schlundt received calls from its management. Calls of a kind that he had never previously received during his time as department head. As Schlundt says in the programme:

"They (The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration, ed.) wanted to see Frank stop saying that if we want to do something about MRSA, then we must begin at the top of the pyramid, as is the case with most other diseases that spread from animals. You begin to sense – at least from our side – that there will pressure to either stop saying this, or to say something else."

Public Administration Consultant Oluf Jørgensen does not beat about the bush when describing this type of pressure:

"It’s clearly a breach of freedom of research and strongly criticisable that a public sector authority is attempting to influence researchers' recommendations so they can match political and tactical considerations."

However, according to Professor Peter Munk Christiansen, there are many examples of this.

"Politics can’t be performed on a scientific basis, even though people at the universities can end up sounding like they’re all supporters of Plato’s good advice on letting the best, and not the majority, run a country! That’s not the way it works. We have politicians with a popular mandate, and in addition to research-based knowledge, they have to take into account many different more interests, also the more pallid. I would say that after 25-years of studying special interest organisations, I’ve become relatively cynical."

The actions of the Danish Agriculture & Food Council not to be included in the report

Following the programme, Minister for Environment and Food, Esben Lunde Larsen (The Liberal Party) has requested an explanation from the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration on how the issue of MRSA was handled. They have until Wednesday 26 October to account for the relationship between the administration itself, the department and the Danish Folketing (Parliament, ed.) – not least in relation to the briefing of the minister and parliament about Frank Aarestrup’s recommendations for tackling MRSA CC398 in Danish pig herds.

On the other hand, the minister does not wish to shed light on the actions of the Danish Agriculture and Food Council in the case. Esben Lunde Larsen explained this in an interview with TV2 News yesterday: 

"No, there’s no need to do that because I don’t suspect that anything has taken place that shouldn’t have taken place. What’s pivotal for me is that when the documentary makes allegations about whether the provision of information has been correct, then we naturally have an interest in getting this documented. And that’s what is relevant for me."

Gagging researchers

The other case which Public Administration Consultant Oluf Jørgensen refers to in the introduction to this article is the case where Professor of Agroecology, Jørgen E. Olesen, among others, from The Department of Agroecology in Foulum, was given a gagging order in relation to making comments on calculations in a report about the effects of the government’s agriculture package, which was ordered by the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark.

Professor Olesen nevertheless ended-up speaking about the subject, and he clearly and publicly stated that the government had idealised the consequences of the political initiatives in the agriculture package while using the researchers’ calculations as a starting point. But then it was so to speak too late in relation to the political decision-making process, and then Minister for Environment and Food, Eva Kjer Hansen, had the agriculture package adopted on Thursday 25 February this year. However, two days later Eva Kjer Hansen was forced to resign her minster post to avoid a vote of no confidence for presenting incorrect figures to the Danish Parliament.

The professor of agroecology is not the only researcher to have been given a gagging order. It is, in fact, common for researchers carrying out research-based public sector consultancy for government agencies or ministries to have to sign a contract stating that they have a duty of confidentiality in relation to commenting on their own research results in a given period determined by the ministry.

In some cases, the researchers are even subject to an unconditional duty of confidentiality. This means that they must not even say that they must not say anything, as revealed by journalist Jesper Tynell in several broadcasts on the Danish radio station P1. In Tynell’s programme, expert after expert has also made clear that the standard agreements between ministries and universities are illegal according to both The Danish Public Administration Act and The University Act.

But according to Public Administration Consultant Oluf Jørgensen, it is no less interesting that the Environmental Information Act is the main law in the environmental and food area, and that this clarifies the case in relation to the researchers' right to publish – and express an opinion on – their research.

"The Environmental Information Act is based on international obligations for extensive access to public administration. The basic requirements were laid down in The Aarhus Convention, which was signed at Aarhus City Hall in 1998. It follows from the act that completed research results on environmental impact may not be held back," says Jørgensen.

Ministry carrying out a review

The Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark has been working on a revision of the framework agreements and standard contracts relating to research-based public sector consultancy for some time. The aim of the review of the contracts is to clarify the existing contractual provisions regarding e.g. the publication of researchers' research results and the researchers' right to speak freely in the public debate on the basis of their research. 

Omnibus has requested right of access to documents in the ministry's draft proposal for the revised provisions regarding the duty of confidentiality and publication. After having reviewed the proposals for agreements and contracts that are now under revision, Public Administration Consultant Oluf Jørgensen says:

"With the proposal for a framework agreement, the ministry is attempting to delay the publication of completed research results by the universities and researchers. Delays of up to three months may mean that politicians and the public first receive important information after a decision has been made. In addition, having to delay the publication of research results when a ministry wishes to do so clearly contravenes the freedom of research.”

Researchers guarded

Two seasoned researchers with extensive experience of research-based public sector consultancy are also guarded about the ministry’s proposal. Professor Jørgen E. Olesen has previously said to Omnibus:

"With these proposals, the ministry is not taking care of the primary problem, which isn’t about what we can publish, but, rather, when we can do it. We also experienced this during the entire process with the agriculture package, because a clause was inserted in the contract with the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark stipulating when we could publish our calculations." 

Professor of Aquatic Environment, Stiig Markager, from the Department of Bioscience in Aarhus has also previously commented on the topic in Omnibus.

"I don't see anything new in what the ministry writes about when we can publish our research, as this has always been in force. On the other hand, the problem is timing; that we must be able to publish our results, and able to discuss them, at the time when they are relevant."

Public Administration Consultant Oluf Jørgensen supports the two researchers:

"If this was to be adopted it wouldn’t change the situation. The ministry will still be able to prevent publication,

while the political process is taking place. It is pitiful that the Danish central public administration has so little respect for the freedom of research and democratic values."

He thinks the case should receive far greater attention among politicians in the Danish Parliament than has so far been the case, as the wording of the ministries’ framework agreements and standard contracts with the universities on public sector consultancy also concern their prerequisites for making political decisions on the best and most qualified basis possible.

Ombudsman requests a briefing

As previously reported in Omnibus, the Parliamentary Ombudsman Jørgen Steen Sørensen has chosen to get involved in the issue of standard contracts between ministries and universities in regard to public sector consultancy on his own initiative, after he became aware of the case via the radio documentary on P1.

In a letter to the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark, Jørgen Steen writes:

"With reference to The Ombudsmand Act Section 17 (1), I hereby request that the ministry inform me of the results of its review of these standard terms and conditions, including an enclosed copy of the revised standard contract. I also request that the ministry inform me of its legal considerations in connection with the review."

Omnibus would like to have asked the Ombudsmand about the considerations that led him to get involved in the matter, and in particular in this context, about his request for information about the ministry's legal considerations in connection with the review.

However, the Ombudsman yesterday replied in an email that he would not have anything further to add to his letter to the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark before a decision was taken about whether he would proceed with the case.

Head of Department Lars Møller Christiansen from the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark states that the ministry is working on the revision of the agreements and contracts, but that it has not finished implementing the proposed amendments which the ministry received after a first consultation process involving the Technical University of Denmark, the University of Copenhagen, Aarhus University and The Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland.

Neither could he yet say when the ministry will be ready to send the revised agreements and contracts for a second consultation process. He was, furthermore, unable to say anything about whether the work of reviewing standard contracts would be finished by the end of this month, as the ministry had previously expected.

Translated by Peter Lambourne