THE ACADEMIC COUNCILS AND THE SENIOR MANAGEMENT TEAM AT AARHUS UNIVERSITY ARE WORKING TOGETHER TO COMBAT ATTEMPTS TO COMPROMISE FREEDOM OF RESEARCH

The academic councils and the senior management team are working together to safeguard freedom of research. In February, a study by the Danish newspaper Politiken revealed that a significant number of researchers at the Danish universities have been subject to attempts to limit their freedom of research. At Aarhus University, we considered this a very important issue, and therefore we initiated our own study with a steering committee consisting of the chairs of the academic councils and the joint union representative at AU.

2019.01.03

Photo: Lars Kruse

By Rector Brian Bech Nielsen and the steering committee: Joint Union Representative Olav W. Bertelsen, Chair of the Academic Council at BSS Osman Skjold Kingo, Chair of the Academic Council at ST Marit-Solveig Seidenkrantz, Chair of the Academic Council at Arts Merete Wiberg and Chair of the Academic Council at Health Helle Prætorius Øhrwald.

The objectives of the study were to determine where and how pressure on research freedom arises, how the researchers respond to pressure, and not least to initiate a process at the level of the senior management team and the academic councils that will enable the university to safeguard freedom of research in the future. The independent study was carried out by the Danish Centre for Social Science Research (VIVE)

Freedom of research is absolutely essential if society is to have confidence in the universities’ research. It is especially important in an age in which false information spreads at lightning speed, and in which it can be difficult to tell truth from lies. For this reason, we must safeguard freedom of research, and we must live up to the Magna Charta of the European universities, which emphasises that freedom of research is one of the fundamental principles of a university’s activities and that governments and universities must ensure and encourage respect for this fundamental requirement.

A common responsibility
Responsibility for ensuring that the integrity of researchers and the freedom of research is respected thus lies with both the universities and the government – and in fact with all parties involved in research and communication of research. But let us must begin by putting our own house in order.

First and foremost, the study fortunately confirms that the majority of researchers at AU do not experience pressure in relation with the publication of their research. Almost 1,500 researchers chose to participate in the study (34 per cent of potential respondents), and out of these, 190 researchers stated that they have felt pressured in relation to freedom of research. The study at AU thus corroborates the findings of the Politiken study, despite the fact that the two studies are not immediately comparable. These results clearly show that too many researchers experience pressure in relation to their research. This is not acceptable.

The study at AU is available at au.dk and vive. dk. The major findings of the study are as follows:

  • researchers from all four faculties have experienced pressure
  • public sector consultancy and income-generating activities are particularly subject to pressure
  • pressure comes from many sources – especially from ministries, management, private companies and colleagues
  • there is a need for clearer guidelines – centrally and locally
  • freedom of research is taken very seriously by management  – but very few researchers reach out to their manager

How do we move forward from here? 
One important objective of the study on freedom of research at AU was to create a common basis for discussing possible solutions. At a recent seminar between the senior management team and the academic councils at AU, we reached agreement on the following proposals, which will now be discussed across the university:

  • Setting clearer guidelines for freedom of research and how to deal with pressure in relation to this, both centrally and locally
  • The appointment of an independent research ambassador by the academic council at each faculty: Employees would be able to anonymously report cases of pressure to the ambassador and receive support and guidance.
  • The establishment of an independent and impartial central committee which would handle cases of breach of freedom of research and make recommendations to the rector.
  • The committee would prepare an annual report which would be submitted to the academic councils, the senior management team and the board.
  • A thorough introduction to the guidelines and to the function of the research ambassadors and the central committee for all managers and employees.
  • Inclusion of freedom of research as a component in courses for researchers on responsible conduct of research: courses should be open to all academic staff members.

Even though we are now beginning to create a clearer framework for researchers’ work at AU, we will not be able to completely eliminate pressure. The university often collaborates with external players, and a university is a workplace where critique is a constant, where competition is fierce, and where the sceptical reception of the work one’s closest colleagues is a matter of principal. It is no easy task to reduce the pressure experienced by researchers, but this study provides a good starting point for addressing the problem.

As mentioned, much of the pressure comes from the outside. The universities increasingly finance their research with funding from public and private funds or from private companies. The study also shows that the pressure is especially prevalent in connection with public sector consultancy and income-generated activities. And so we must also be able to resist external pressure. We want to emphasise to politicians, officials, industry and other external partners that freedom of research must be taken seriously.

Our goal is to create an unequivocal framework for collaborations and research processes leading up to the publication of results. If we succeed, we will have created a solid foundation for future research collaborations, both internally and externally, with respect for freedom of research.  

 

You can read the study here

Research, Administration (Academic), All groups, All AU units, Aarhus University, Administrative, Policy and strategy, Collaboration