Independent journalism about VU Amsterdam | Since 1953
27 February 2024

Science
& Education

Universities offer greater transparency on professors’ ancillary positions

The Netherlands’ fourteen universities have revamped their online registration of the ancillary activities undertaken by their professors. These new registers can be accessed through the website of university association UNL.

A number of professors are known to receive funding from industry or government organisations. This information can be highly relevant, if a professor publishing research on lung diseases is funded by a tobacco company, for example. Yet the universities’ own registers have fallen short on transparency for many years.

Back in 2007, then education minister Ronald Plasterk (PvdA) called for a national register to be put in place but the plan did not materialise. The universities objected, amid concerns that such a register would be an invasion of the professors’ privacy. They did agree to publish details of their professors’ ancillary positions on their own websites. But it has since turned out that these registers were far from complete.

Conflicts of interest

In 2022, education minister Robbert Dijkgraaf decided action was once again needed. Reports in de Volkskrant, Folia and current affairs show Nieuwsuur had revealed that various professors of tax law and fiscal economics also held other positions that could lead to a conflict of interest, yet none of them were listed in the university registers. Dijkgraaf therefore renewed calls to establish a single national register: “What we need, pure and simple, is a website where you can see what other jobs a professor or researcher has.”

Despite Dijkgraaf’s insistence, the universities took a different route. They commissioned a feasibility study into a central registration system for professors’ ancillary activities. Their study found that separate registries for each university but with a uniform structure offer “the best viable option”.

Privacy

It turns out that a national register would still raise privacy concerns due to the lack of a legal basis. Universities have therefore opted to standardise and improve their own registers and grant online access through UNL.

Despite the ongoing lack of a central register, Dijkgraaf welcomes the move as a constructive step forward. “Collaboration between professors on the one hand and civil society organisations and businesses on the other can be useful, and enhance the quality of education. But these links have to be clear for all to see.”

The new registers list the names of professors, their faculty and the additional positions they fulfil. For example, you can see if an academic also acts as an advisor to a company or organisation. However, the information provided still has its shortcomings. In some cases, an ancillary position is simply listed as ‘other’, leaving the professor’s role wide open to interpretation.

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