professor as ventriloquist dummy
(Illustration: Auke Herrema)

Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf wants greater transparency in who pays professors as transparency builds trust in academia. What is the situation at TU Delft?

Lees in het Nederlands

  • In March of this year, TU Delft published an anonymised list of 48 externally financed chairs. However, an investigation by Delta shows that less than one quarter of the personal web pages of the professors holding the chairs also state the sponsors. “In principle, you should be as transparent as possible,” says TU Delft Integrity Officer Professor Ibo van de Poel.

Are professors really independent if they are on the payroll of corporations? This issue became a topic of discussion when a public broadcaster in the Netherlands revealed part-time jobs held by professors – on average four for each professor. On top of that, the registration was not even complete. Robbert Dijkgraaf, the Minister of Education, was concerned. “Academia will be disconnected from society unless it is 100% transparent. I will discuss this with the universities as I very much want to hear what will be done.”

Responding to Parliamentary Questions a few weeks later, Dijkgraaf said that he would review the Netherlands Code of Conduct for Research Integrity so as to safeguard the research independence of endowed professors. Last January, Dijkgraaf informed Parliament that he was discussing the registration of ancillary activities and the financing of chairs with Universities of The Netherlands (UNL).

Code of Conduct
Netherlands Code of Conduct for Research Integrity was compiled in 2004 and contains mandatory principles for academic researchers. These are: honesty, diligence, transparency, independence and responsibility. The most recent version was produced in 2018. The Code is modified every couple of years and with each version becomes more detailed and specific in defining the principles. This was explained by Prof. Ibo van de Poel, Professor of Ethics and Technology at the Faculty Technology, Policy and Management and the TU Delft Integrity Officer. “In my Integrity Officer function I advise the Executive Board, invited and uninvited, on issues regarding integrity,” he explains. According to Van de Poel, Dijkgraaf is thinking about the next revision of the Code of Conduct. “He especially wants to see issues of conflicts of interest and financing more firmly anchored in the Code.”

This should prevent issues, such as those around Ad van Wijk, Professor of Hydrogen, arising. In March, the ‘Financieel Dagblad’ (FD) newspaper revealed that for five years Van Wijk had been sponsored by Netbeheer Nederland, the umbrella organisation of gas network operators in the Netherlands. While Van Wijk explained that in his opinion hydrogen is the perfect buffer for sustainable energy on radio and TV, Netbeheer Nederland was not mentioned while its members had a clear interest in the hydrogen economy to give their gas network a new role in the post-gas era. In line with the Netherlands Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, Van Wijk should have mentioned Netbeheer Nederland (Code of Conduct chapter 3, point 44: ‘Be open about and give complete information on external stakeholders, customers, financers, potential conflicts of interest, and relevant ancillary activities.’). But Van Wijk told the FD that he had not been informed of this by TU Delft.

Marije Hozee, Communications Advisor in the Human Resources Department, responded by email. ‘Every new staff member is informed of the importance of the TU Delft Code of Conduct and is given a copy when they start their activities. The issue of integrity is addressed in a workshop at the welcome meeting for new staff members. Handling potential conflicts of interest and ancillary activities transparently is important in building society’s trust in academia and academics, and is thus important for TU Delft.’ Why this did not get through to Van Wijk is not clear.

Around for a while
existence of endowed professors, external financing of research (the third funding flow), and conflicts of interest is certainly not new. An endowed chair complements the current education programme and is not paid from TU Delft’s education budget, but through special funds, legacies, foundations or companies. The payments are made for idealistic reasons or to further develop a commercial area. Instituting endowed chairs was made possible by the education review of the then Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper in 1905. That law made it possible for a university that received Government funds to have an ideological chair. In bringing this about, Kuyper anchored his Protestant faith in the Free University of Amsterdam that he had established 25 years previously.

Shell and Billiton even jointly set up a faculty at Utrecht University in 1925. They did this because at the time they did not agree with the sympathy expressed in the Utrecht ‘Indological’ Faculty. Indonesia only gained its independence from the Netherlands in 1949.

From the 1970s, this type of far-reaching involvement by industry was limited by the new Bill of Educational Reform. This Bill decreed that an executive board must give explicit permission before someone can be appointed professor. Furthermore, heavy requirements were introduced relating to the person’s research, publications, and teaching skills.

answer – better registration – had also been under discussion for a while. In 2008, the former Minister of Education and former professor was the first to argue for a national record of payments to research and endowed chairs. This did not happen. Universities were expected to publish ancillary activities on their websites themselves. This was only done in part, as the ‘Groene Amsterdammer’ weekly magazine found out six years (!) later. Of the 17,000 ancillary activities, one third were not reported. The Education Minister at the time, Jet Bussemaker, did not believe this to be an issue and actively encouraged close ties between universities and industry. This would mean that universities ‘would be firmly embedded in society’.

So it was just time until a new scandal broke. This happened at the start of 2022 when the university newspaper Folia reported that ‘almost all professors of tax law at the University of Amsterdam also have jobs at large law or tax firms’ and that these companies actively intervene in publications of university staff. What?! Various media, including the news broadcaster NOS, covered the ancillary activities of professors and their irregular recording. Parliamentary Questions followed and the Minister insisted on better reporting and a tightening of the Code of Conduct. Readers can see a pattern emerging.

This is why the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science requested universities last year to create a national, uniform, and public register for the ancillary activities of professors and endowed professors. The UNL took on the task and at the end of 2022 wrote that it would have an investigation carried out into the technicalities of setting up a register in the first half of 2023. Points of attention would be ‘the privacy and the labour rights aspects of a public register’.

Ibo van de Poel: “The policy concerning endowed chairs is the least defined.” (Photo: Jaden Accord)

What is the situation at TU Delft?
the request of the UNL, TU Delft has compiled a list of its externally financed chairs. This was published in March 2023. The list contains 48 chairs (there are 495 professors – paid and unpaid – at TU Delft in total). The external financing comes from public institutions such as ministries (27), research institutions (3), foundations (3), and companies (15). There are nine companies on the list: IMEC, NXP (3x), Shell (3x), Keygene, Philips (2x), IBM, TenneT, Signify and DSM.

Apart from financing endowed chairs, companies can also finance research (third income flow). Professors at TU Delft can also be employed part-time by a company (ancillary activities). Out of these three types of work relationships, the policy concerning endowed chairs is the least clearly defined says Integrity Officer Van de Poel. “If you receive money for a particular piece of research, you are required to state it. As far as I know, this is done as well. Journals also ask about it. Ancillary activities are always discussed in the yearly performance review and a standard procedure has been designed for this purpose. If a professor also works for the company that pays his chair, this should be made clear in the ancillary activities. This is not always the case with externally paid chairs where someone is employed full-time at TU Delft. It could be done more systematically,” admits Van de Poel.

Transparency around external funders on the TU Delft’s professors’ pages is indeed not consistent. In only 11 of the 48 cases is the funder of the chair clearly stated on the web page of the professor. One of them is the Stichting Installatietechniek Nederland at the bottom of Prof. Atze Boerstra’s (Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment) web page. The Faculties of Technology, Policy and Management and Architecture and the Built Environment are above average in their reporting. In 14 of the 48 cases, the funder is stated as a secondary employer, but is not stated as a funder of the chair. The website of Professor of Drinking Water Engineering Prof. Jan Peter van der Hoek (Faculty Civil Engineering and Geosciences) is one example.

In many cases, 18 times, the external funder is not mentioned at all on the professor’s web page. One example is the Chair of Ecological Hydraulic Engineering at the Faculty of Civil Engineering and Geosciences, that is paid by the World Wildlife Fund. We are familiar with Prof. Peter Herman for his plea for tidal zones, but the WWF is not stated on his web page. The names of external funders are hardly mentioned on the websites of the Faculties of Civil Engineering and Geosciences and Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science.

five of the 48 cases, the person holding the chair is not even stated. The list of externally funded chairs at TU Delft is anonymised. The names of the chairs are listed, but not the names of the professors. You may find some of them after some googling (43 of the 48), but not all of them. Why is this? On the intranet Rector Tim van der Hagen states ‘Transparency is not as simple as it seems as we still have a very important obligation: the duty of care to our staff members. Our academics have to sometimes put up with a lot on social media channels and the media in general. This is a shame as discussions should be about the content and researchers should feel safe to take part in public debate.’

What is Van de Poel’s position on the interface between transparency and privacy? “Our rule of thumb is that in cases of ancillary activities, we state the companies on the person’s personal web page. I believe that we should do the same with external financing.” Van de Poel does, however, point out the opt-out option. “People can omit certain details about ancillary activities if there is a good reason to do so. If there is a real risk that someone would face problems by stating the information, their employer is duty bound to protect them. That said, in principle you should be as transparent as possible.”

If someone in the future is not clear about who pays their chair, despite the revised Code of Conduct and the national register, should the person be subject to sanctions? “The Integrity Board does not impose sanctions,” says Van de Poel. “We only have an advisory role to the Executive Board. If someone does not adhere to the Code, it is up to the Executive Board to impose sanctions or not.” As far as Van de Poel can remember, this has never been done.

What now?

  • At national level, it is now waiting for the national, uniform, and public register of ancillary activities and externally financed chairs falling under the UNL. The letter to the Minister (20 December 2022) states that the plan is ‘to take a decision on investments and tender sometime in summer’. Delta’s request for the current status remained unanswered.
  • At TU Delft, the Integrity Board has taken on the task of improving understanding of the importance of transparency among academic staff. “This can still be improved,” says Van de Poel.
  • Rector Tim van der Hagen will have a discussion about integrity and transparency with moderator Leon Heuts (Director of the Public Lecture Series) and other guests on 8 June. The talk show will be live streamed from 12:30 to 13:30.

Further reading

  • Erasmus magazine, Science for sale, 2016
  • Read about TU Delft’s Integrity Policy.

With thanks to Zhané Hunte, Data Insights team TU Delft.