False friends with deep pockets

June 6, 2013

A web portal has just been launched in Germany with the aim of monitoring the impact of industry funding on the academy. The site is called Hochschulwatch.de. In linguistic terms, Hochschule is a so-called “false friend” because it means university and not high school.

The portal is a cooperative venture between Transparency International, a non-governmental organisation that combats corruption, die Tageszeitung, a daily newspaper popularly known as taz, and the Freier Zusammenschluss von StudentInnenschaften (Fzs), the non-party umbrella organisation of student representatives in Germany.

The venture is motivated by concern over ever-increasing funding from industry for chairs and academic institutes, which critics argue can erode researchers’ independence, objectivity, methodology and results.

German universities are becoming increasingly dependent on third-party funding to survive, which opens up the field for lobbying and research that favours funders. It is very much a case of “he who pays the piper calls the tune”, or to use the German version of this expression: “I will sing the song of he whose bread I eat.”

Rudolf Speth, professor of political science at the University of Kassel, says that influencing research and establishing the impact of funding are complex issues. However, in such situations there is a clear need for transparency, he adds.

Weekly news magazine Der Spiegel argues that “time and again, there are dubious cases of sponsorship between universities and industry”.

Examples abound of firms funding university facilities. There is the lecture hall at the University of Applied Sciences Würzburg-Schweinfurt sponsored by supermarket chain Aldi Süd; the new library at the University of Mannheim funded by German software billionaire Hasso Plattner; and in Potsdam, an entire innovation centre has been funded by SAP, the company Mr Plattner co-founded.

Throughout Germany, there are presently around 1,000 funded chairs, with about half financed by industry and commerce.

There are also allegations that the prevailing legal framework covering the sector is insufficient and unsatisfactory because it fails to provide the necessary protection for university research integrity. For instance, in 2012 the administrative court in Cologne rejected a demand for a contract between the University of Cologne and Bayer Schering Pharma to be publicly scrutinised.

Edda Müller, chairwoman of Transparency International Germany, specifically criticises the lack of obligation for universities to make their contracts available for public scrutiny. As a result, it remains unclear “whether universities get money in return for services rendered”.

Dr Müller is extremely concerned that the selection of professors and of research results may be influenced by the pecuniary links between businesses and universities. She continues that “the ends do not justify the means - universities are not advertising banners”.

In this vein, FZS student representative Erik Marquardt states that “you can’t even go into the canteen these days without being confronted with an offer of a new savings account or mobile phone contract”.

The Hochschulwatch project is currently set to run for a year and is investigating more than 400 universities. Quite what it will reveal, and whether it will wield any influence, remains to be seen.

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