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Independent universities are built on credibility

The case of the beef report has challenged Aarhus University's credibility. Therefore, the university's independence must always be based on transparency and arm's length. Kurt Nielsen, vice-dean at Technical Sciences, has published a contribution to the debate in the journal Ingeniøren.

2020.01.22 | Kurt Nielsen

Kurt Nielsen is vice-dean for public sector consultancy and business collaboration at the Faculty of Technical Sciences, Aarhus University. Photo: Lars Kruse, AU Photo

As a university, our purpose is to educate graduates, generate new knowledge and bring our knowledge into play so that we help society evolve in an enlightened democracy.

This means that part of our task is to enter into specific collaborations with the business community. This can bolster research because, among other things, it gives us access to data and the opportunity to test new methods. The business community also benefits because the new knowledge can enhance their activities and innovation.

Green transition requires research and collaboration

The green transition of Danish society depends on research and on collaboration between private companies and the public sector. A research-based, green transition could also be the key to future export success. 

Therefore, collaboration is an important social task, even though there are a number of innate dilemmas. This is a particular challenge in relation to the freedom of research at universities because, among other things, the freedom of research is the right to choose the questions you want to seek answers to, and the methods you want to apply. Collaboration is often established in response to specific questions, and the question itself may limit the response options.This does not block researchers from the right and obligation to assess factors and uncertainties that significantly influence the issue, even if these are not directly involved in the research question.

Furthermore, clearly there must be no restrictions on the researchers' right to choose methods, data and analyses to investigate the question, and the conclusion of the studies must always be entirely the researchers’ own.

Innate conflicts of interest must be managed

Besides the self-evident access to demand free and independent knowledge from a university, it is also vital to be sure of consistent quality, irrespective of whether a partner represents a government agency, an industry organisation or a company. It is the university's duty to make it absolutely clear that the knowledge it supplies cannot be steered in a specific direction determined by collaboration partners.

As follow-up to a 2018 study on freedom of research, Aarhus University has been strengthening its efforts in this area. For a number of years, the university faculties have utilised advisers on the responsible conduct of research. These advisors are independent of management, and any researcher can seek advice from them anonymously. They were given an extended mandate in 2019, as was the university’s Research Practice Committee, which deals with cases involving such aspects as questionable research practices, freedom of research and policies for research integrity.

Independently of this, in 2020 we aim to obtain ISO certification for the quality management system for our public sector consultancy services. The fundamental principles, including that all reports must be peer-reviewed, will also apply to faculty research collaboration with private companies.

Moreover, following the case of the beef report, with which readers of Ingeniøren magazine will be well acquainted, all researchers have to attend recurring courses on good research practice. In addition, we are introducing a better system for the contracts to be set up for every collaboration project. Finally, in future we will publish any comments on draft reports from external partners and the related responses from the researchers. As a result, everyone will be able to see whether there have been inappropriate attempts to influence researchers.

These are comprehensive, but necessary, initiatives to improve transparency and to ensure the credibility of the knowledge we provide.

When is research independent?

Independence is a crucial discussion topic for universities. Research depends on funding. But money for laboratories, salaries, materials and so on must never determine the results and conclusions published from Aarhus University.

The university has been challenged in some collaborations. The beef report case challenged the university to a degree that caused a lot of overtime and more than a few extra grey hairs for a lot of people.

The incident has affected the entire university because it has sown doubt on the credibility of some of the research that lies at the very foundation of work at Aarhus University. The researchers involved confirm that they were free to choose their methods and they stand by their conclusions in the report. The report has been submitted for international review to ensure a sober assessment of their work.

The principles of research integrity and research practice are not new, but if there is anything we have learned from the beef report controversy, it has to be that we must sustain our current efforts to enhance transparency and arm's length every single day. It cannot be taken for granted that everyone in an organisation will have the principles top of mind, and it is a job for management to make sure that they do. Because these principles must be behind all of the value creation at the university.

Two new faculties at AU – one with special focus on collaboration

Finally, I would like to mention the reorganisation we have been preparing for at Aarhus University since February 2019, and which means that the Faculty of Science and Technology will be split in two in early 2020: The Faculty of Natural Sciences and the Faculty of Technical Sciences. The first faculty is responsible for research and consultancy within climate, food, agriculture and the environment, and it includes the Danish Centre for Food and Agriculture and the Danish Centre for Environment and Energy as well as engineering subjects. Coupling with engineering subjects provides a unique opportunity to forge innovative solutions within climate adaptation, food technology, agricultural systems, animal welfare, environmental and energy technology, as well as nature restoration and biodiversity.

The faculty has strong focus on external collaboration, and together with the stronger focus on openness and stringency in our processes, the new organisation provides us with better opportunities to deliver research, graduates and consultancy of a relevance and quality matching Denmark's challenges in the fields of the environment, climate, energy, food production and resources.

Kurt Nielsen
Vice-dean, Faculty of Technical Sciences, Aarhus University

News, Faculty of Technical Sciences