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Free scientific debate and responsible conduct of research are core values

Rector Brian Bech Nielsen affirms the centrality of free scientific debate and explains how the university is handling the controversy at the Faculty of Natural Sciences that is currently getting so much media coverage.

2021.01.25 | Brian Bech Nielsen

The rector responds to the recent article in Berlingske newspaper about a controversy around free scientific debate at the Faculty of Natural Sciences. Photo: Lars Kruse.

Free scientific debate and the responsible conduct of research are core values that are deeply imbedded in Aarhus University’s DNA, and that will never change. Let me begin by affirming that.

On Sunday 17 January, Berlingske published an article about a controversial case at Aarhus University that centres on issues of freedom of scientific debate and responsible conduct of research. The university’s Research Practice Committee has considered the case, and I fully support their ruling.

As Berlingske has reported, Dean Kristian Pedersen expressed himself in a private email in a way that – taken at face value – can be interpreted as an attack on researchers’ right of free scientific debate and critique. I am absolutely convinced that Kristian Pedersen, like all other scientists, considers free scientific debate and critique to be among the cornerstones of research, which he has also affirmed in his response to the article in Berlingske. In his response, he apologises without reservation, and expresses his regret for his statements in his emails. He has also conveyed his apologies to me directly. I have made it clear to him in no uncertain terms that his statement is unacceptable, and he has assured me that a misjudgement of this kind won’t happen again.

But more is at stake here than safeguarding and ensuring the freedom and integrity of research. It’s also a question of safeguarding a good work environment and promoting a healthy climate for collaboration. We can only achieve this by speaking and writing to and about one another in a respectful manner.This applies both to us as leaders and to employees at Aarhus University. It also applies to the chair of the Carlsberg Foundation.

There has been some speculation about whether Carlsberg Foundation chair Flemming Besenbacher has influenced the handling and outcome of this case. He has not.We have dealt with the case in accordance with the university’s policies without reference to his views.

In this particular case, unfortunately, the dispute between colleagues has not yet been resolved. On both sides of the dispute, the parties involved are extremely qualified, valued employees, and some of them have been seriously affected by it – not least due to the media coverage, which they have rightly described as overwhelming.

I hope that this issue will soon be resolved in a fair and appropriate manner, out of consideration for all the parties involved and the quality of the work environment. I have spoken to the dean and have expressed my confidence that he and the parties involved in the case will handle it with respect for academic integrity in a way that also restores a positive climate for collegial collaboration. 

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