How frequently are scientists influenced by the governments and companies that finance them? And how big is the third source of funding? The Rathenau Institute investigated.
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How frequently are scientists influenced by the governments and companies that finance them? And how big is the third source of funding? The Rathenau Institute investigated.

Lees in het Nederlands

In the Netherlands, scientific research is primarily funded by the Government (the first source of funding) and by public funders like the NOW, the Dutch Research Council (the second source of funding). But there is also a third source of funding that involves researchers seeking funds ‘from the market’. They receive money from commercial companies, non-profits or government bodies such as provinces or municipalities. Subsidies and grants from the European Horizon Europe research and innovation programme are included in this third source of funding.

Under pressure
This type of external funding can lead to the exertion of ‘undesirable influence’, warned the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) that represents the science community in 2018. After all, what would happen if the funder does not like the findings of the study?

The fear is that scientists would be put under pressure, thereby jeopardising the independence and reliability of the research. In extreme cases, the entire research could end up in the bin.

Twenty-six percent has experienced the ‘undesirable influence’ of the commissioning body or the grant giver.

Does this happen often in science in the Netherlands, and how big is the third source of funding? The GroenLinks political party submitted these questions in a motion to the House of Representatives, after which the Rathenau Institute looked into them.

No new data
No scientific research has been done into undesirable influencing practices and the Rathenau Institute has also not collected any new data. Instead, it points to existing literature and to a 2018 survey in the NRC Handelsblad newspaper.

The survey had asked about 2,000 scientists for their experiences with undesirable influencing practices during their work. They did not specify research funded through third sources of funding. Of the respondents, 26% said that they had occasionally ‘experienced attempts by the commissioning body or grant maker to influence research’. That pressure came mostly from the Government and from industry.

The respondents felt that most of the pressure was for them to adjust their research framework or the results. Of the respondents, 27% ultimately adjusted their research in line with the wishes of the commissioning body.

In terms of the scale of the undesirable influencing practices, there are mostly indications rather than hard facts, says the Rathenau Institute. The Government and science in general are taking more steps to avoid undesirable influencing practices, through passing regulations and imposing codes of conduct for example.

One thing is certain. The funds through the third source of funding have increased greatly over the last few years, from EUR 784 million in 2008 to EUR 1.2 billion in 2018.

This is an increase of 51% and accounts for 16% of the total income of universities. In 2008, this was only 14%. Of all the funds that universities spend on research, more than 29% came from the third source of funding in 2018.

European money
The Rathenau Institute sees that it is mostly the contributions of ‘international organisations’ that have grown enormously. This could be European money, but also financing from international companies, governments and science funders.

TU Delft receives quite a lot of research money from corporations

There may not be definitive total figures, but universities’ annual reports lead the Rathenau Institute to believe that ‘the majority’ of these funds come from the European research programme. European subsidies are increasingly requiring projects to collaborate with industry. This was the case in 22% of all Horizon 2020 (the predecessor of Horizon Europe) projects.

The differences between universities are significant. Twenty-two percent of TU Eindhoven’s total income comes from the third source of funding, while this is only 5% for Tilburg University. This range is also reflected in the range of different funders. A relatively high amount of TU Delft’s research funds comes from industry, while the University of Utrecht mostly targets ‘other non-profit organisations’.

It is not easy to assert what type of influence is undesirable, writes Rathenau Institute Director Melanie Peters in her foreword. “The third source of funding also ensures that science can address the needs of society and industry. And this in turn ensures more relevant research with greater societal impact.”

Minister of Education Van Engelshoven also finds the discussion about influence ‘subjective’ in part. ‘What is seen by one person as undesirable influencing practices is seen by another as desirable quality improvement,’ she writes (in Dutch) to the House of Representatives. She believes that the report does not point to an increase in undesirable influencing practices.

HOP, Evelien Flink