Lecturer warns of threat to research transparency

A German finance expert has warned that the country’s federal states could be entering a “dangerous race to the bottom” regarding legislation on transparency in cooperation between industry and higher education. Christian Kreiss of Aalen University believes that cooperation agreements should be publicly accessible in order to guarantee academic freedom.

Kreiss, a professor of finance and political economy at Aalen University, in Southern Germany, contested a contract between the University of Mainz and the Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation, or BIS. The foundation was set up by Hubertus Liebrecht, a nephew of Albert Boehringer, who founded pharmaceuticals giant Boehringer Ingelheim.

With an annual turnover of €15 billion (US$15.9 billion), Boehringer Ingelheim is the country’s largest pharmaceutical company that also engages in research. In 2009, BIS donated €100 million to support the University of Mainz’ Institute of Molecular Biology. Rhineland-Palatinate state government provided €45.5 million for the construction of the institute, which was opened in 2011.

Together with a further €50 million for a redevelopment of its department of biology, the University of Mainz received a total of €150 million for a 10-year period from BIS – the largest amount of third-party funding provided in Germany so far.

However, inspection of the contract document by a radio broadcasting channel this summer revealed that it guaranteed BIS a say in job posting, appointments, the composition of the institute’s advisory council and its representation on the council. Furthermore, publication of research results and press releases requires BIS consent.

The rector of the University of Mainz has conceded that the contract contains flaws. And regarding appointment procedures, Michael Hartmer, managing director of the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers, notes that “donors may not take part in negotiations and must not have a say in the negotiating procedure”.

Nevertheless, Konrad Wolf, Rhineland Palatinate’s higher education minister of the Social Democrat-Green-Free Democrat government, maintains that the university’s contracts with BIS “are not objectionable legally”.

Clashes with academic freedom?

Kreiss argues that the vetoing powers awarded to the funding party clash with academic freedom, and he also questions that access to the contract document has so far only been granted to individuals after their having taken legal action to see it.

Mainz Administrative Court recently ruled against Kreiss in a dispute over the disclosure issue. Rhineland-Palatinate’s law on transparency, introduced last January, requires that, in the area of science and research, only three items need to be disclosed in third-party funding: the name of the donor, the amount of funding provided and the period it covers. Kreiss now intends to bring the case before Rhineland Palatinate’s Higher Administrative Court in Coblenz.

“This new law is a serious retrograde step in terms of academic freedom,” Kreiss argues. “It prevents scrutinising influence taken by industrial donors on public-funded higher education institutions.”

He also regards the disclosure of research results as a fundamental element of academic freedom. This, Kreiss maintains, includes the provision of copies of the original contracts governing the respective research projects.

“Hand-written minutes based on an inspection of the relevant documents, as permitted by the registrar of Mainz University in the BIS case, are not enough,” he says.

Kreiss believes that practices such as that in Mainz gives state governments an incentive to develop legislation keeping transparency and the obligation to disclose details of third-party funding agreements at a minimum, since this will attract more funding to the universities.

“Eventually, this could lead to an absurd race to the bottom in legislative procedures, to ever lower transparency standards and disclosure requirements,” Kreiss warns. “The only way to stop this is through the federal states in general or even the federal government adopting regulations that provide a certain framework with minimum conditions regarding transparency.”

Last April, Germany’s Stifterverband, an initiative by industry in support of education and research, issued recommendations on transparency in collaborative ventures between universities and private companies, stressing the “responsibility of universities to regularly and appropriately inform the public about their collaborative projects and third party-funded activities” while taking due care that business secrets are protected.

Stifterverband membership includes many of Germany’s leading industrial foundations. Its president, Andreas Barner, is chair of Mainz University Council and former Boehringer Ingelheim CEO.

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