University criticised for conduct in chewing gum case

May 19, 2000


Danish minister of research Birte Weiss has reprimanded the leaders of Aarhus University for "not showing the necessary attention in supervising the university's activities and its staff" in the Dandy chewing gum research case, which has turned into a Danish university scandal.

Last year, the university, two researchers and Danish chewing-gum maker Dandy clashed over publication of a report of a study, funded by Dandy, that the chewing gum maker felt was unsatisfactory.

In October 1997, two researchers at Aarhus's institute of dentistry finished a three-year study of 603 children in Lithuania to determine whether V6 chewing gum, produced by Dandy, is effective in preventing cavities in teeth.

The final result, ready eight months later, showed that there was no significant difference in the number of cavities, no matter what the children had chewed during the study.

Dissatisfied with the result, Dandy checked if the Lithuanian children had followed the research project's regime. It seems they had not. Chewing gum, rare in Lithuania when the research started, had become common and the children in the project had apparently also chewed other types of gum. An American statistician commented that a sample of 603 children was too small.

Dandy discussed these findings with the leading Aarhus researcher in August 1999. She did not find the objections to be relevant and announced that the researchers were preparing an abstract for presentation at an international congress in the US in April 2000.

On September 10 1999, Dandy received the abstract, which was sent to the US at the same time. According to Dandy, this was a clear breach of the agreement that the material should be shown to the chewing gum manufacturer before it was sent. Dandy contacted the researchers demanding that all its objections be included in the material; the researchers refused.

Dandy then tried in vain to get the researchers to retract their material. Dandy's lawyer contacted Aarhus rector Henning Lehmann to say that Dandy could run into serious problems as a result of the research. Lehmann said he could recommend to the researchers that they withdraw their material.

At the end of September, Lehmann said that the researchers agreed to observe a written recommendation to withdraw the material, provided they were allowed to publish their findings in a scientific journal later; the researchers and Dandy signed a new agreement.

On November 8, the Danish press started reporting that the researchers had been forced into silence. Dandy threatened to sue Aarhus for having leaked secret information that could damage the reputation of the chewing gum manufacturer. Thorkild Karring, the head of the institute of dentistry, admitted he had leaked the information and resigned because he found the whole situation "totally idiotic".

A report on the ministry's investigation of the matter says the agreement between the university and Dandy, signed in 1994, was inadequate and unclear. It did not clarify the parties' obligations -Dandy was to pay money, but it was quite unclear what the university obliged itself to do in return. Nor did the agreement ensure publication of the results. The report also criticises the fact that the agreement was between Dandy and two researchers, not the university's leaders, as the researchers could not bind the university legally.

The Dandy case has resulted in new rules from the ministry making the way universities administer private research funding more transparent.

In future, universities must account for all external funds once a year. They must also have a standard contract ready as a basis for all agreements with private funders.

In addition, the auditor general is expected to deliver a report later this year on the administrative, funding and accounting aspects of private research funds at Copenhagen and Aarhus universities. Aarhus has already introduced new guidelines.

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