From where I sit - Everything's for sale

June 16, 2011

A scandal is being reported in the German media about Deutsche Bank providing a large sum of money to finance professors in Berlin for "research purposes" - but with the bank having a say in what is researched, published and by whom.

A previously secret contract between Deutsche Bank and two prestigious institutions, Humboldt University of Berlin and the Technical University of Berlin, recently came to light. The Quantitative Products Laboratory, the fruit of the contract, was launched in 2006 and has been funded by the bank to the tune of €3 million (£2.7 million) a year.

While joint research projects are standard fare, this one evidently goes beyond commonly accepted notions of partnership. The problem, say both the weekly magazine Der Spiegel and the national German radio station Deutschlandfunk, is that the university departments in question have minimal, if any, freedom to conduct research as they please. The allegation is that academic objectives are secondary to the bank's marketing needs.

Although the contractual partners claim that scientific independence has always been guaranteed, the now publicly available contract speaks a somewhat different language. The influence of Deutsche Bank is clear, as is the willingness of the universities to go along with it.

Deutschlandfunk commented that while universities are always extremely keen to get funding, this time they may have gone too far in their pursuit.

For example, the contract guarantees the bank a place on the selection board for the lab's professors, and calls for the research institute to be situated "in close proximity to Deutsche Bank". The bank's wishes have been granted: the Quantitative Products Laboratory is based in the same building as Deutsche Bank's Investment and Finance Centre in Berlin.

Particularly disconcerting is the fact that the contract stipulates that the universities must get permission from Deutsche Bank before publishing results. The bank promised "not to be unreasonable" in this respect, but the deal was that its interests could not be prejudiced by the research.

There are also clauses giving the bank some rights and preferential treatment regarding "personnel marketing" and distributing information through the universities' internal mail systems, in order to "optimise its activities" in acquiring suitable staff from the student bodies.

Not surprisingly, the academic community has voiced its dismay. Michael Hartmer, managing director of the German Universities Association, lamented that "one cannot avoid getting the impression that academia is being bought here...this is not a normal funding agreement".

Likewise, Peter Grottian, professor emeritus of political science at the Free University of Berlin, a scholar with a reputation for lambasting alleged ethical breaches, even bought shares in Deutsche Bank to acquire the right to speak out at its annual shareholders' meeting. He stridently accused the bank of abusing a lucrative contract to influence both research and teaching, and attacked the opportunism of universities that tolerated such actions.

On the positive side, the contract is coming up for renewal in July at the end of a four-year period. A spokesman for Deutsche Bank said that it will not be extending the arrangement. Nonetheless, the matter constitutes yet another contentious issue in the somewhat troubled German academic landscape.

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