Whistleblowers

June 18, 1999

Academics are concerned that increasing reliance on commercial funds is damaging academic freedom, the THES readers survey has revealed (right). But a report from the THES Netherlands correspondent, Maggie Ayre (below), reveals the problems of drawing public attention to the cases where research sponsors are damaging academic integrity.

A book that exposes dozens of cases of researchers having to alter or withhold their findings has caused a stir in the Netherlands.

De Onwelkome Boodschap (The Unwelcome Message) by Andre Kobben and Henk Tromp has become the subject of legal action over one of the cases it cites.

Professor Kobben, an anthropologist at Leiden University, is being sued for e11,500 (Pounds 7,500) by one of the people featured in the book. "I'll be ruined if they win," he joked.

He claims there was financial pressure on universities and commercial agencies to produce results that fit the commissioning governmental or industrial bodies' requirements.

Accuracy and honesty are often compromised, he says, because researchers fear financial penalties from dissatisfied organisation threatening to take business elsewhere.

Professor Kobben says he has always been interested in the "seamier side of science".

However, it was not until 1996 that he and Dr Tromp first encountered it directly. Both were working for the Leiden Institute for Social Scientific Research when the unit was commissioned by the ministry of education to investigate sickness rates in education.

The results showed a sharp rise in absenteeism in 1993-1994. This was unwelcome news for the ministry as it meant spending an extra E30 million (Pounds 20 million) on replacing staff on sick leave.

Senior civil servants then tried to put pressure on the Leiden researchers to reduce those figures in their published findings.

When they refused, the ministry commissioned a different company to do its research. Although Professor Kobben and Dr Tromp managed to get the matter raised in parliament, no explanation was forthcoming from the ministry.

"Yes, we are seen as whistleblowers," Kobben says of De Onwelkome Boodschap. "It caused quite an upheaval. The emotions are running much higher than I expected. Many people who feel threatened - researchers, government people, not only those discussed in the book - are in a rage."

In another case, Ad Corten is also going to court - to try to get his old job back. As a marine biologist with the Dutch National Fisheries Institute, he predicted in 1993 that planned changes to the Dutch policy on fishing quotas would have disastrous results for fish stocks.

He assumed his colleagues felt the same way. He was wrong. They opted to toe the government line, which advocated the abolition of established fishing quotas.

When Mr Corten went public about his fears, he was ostracised by his colleagues and eventually moved to another post. "It's a matter of principle," he says of his legal battle. "Because as far as I'm concerned, I've done my job."

He believes that the Netherlands still has a basically honest approach to science and research, and that the book shows how unacceptable manipulation is.

Professor Kobben, however, worries that the more universities become market driven, the less independent the research commissioned from outside can be. He warns that growing public cynicism is "dangerous and detrimental to honest society".

One solution might be the appointment of an ombudsman, he says.

Whistleblowers would like to hear from anyone who has been forced to suppress or alter research findings at the behest of research funders, or anyone forced to compromise standards. Contact Whistleblowers, in complete confidence, on the email address (left).

6 analysisThe Times HigherJjune 18 1999 'Results showed a sharp rise in absenteeism in 1993-94. This was unwelcome news for the ministry'

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