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An Academic ‘Revolution’? Dutch Research System in Crisis

Not only censorship leads to a lack of trustworthy information: Nele Goutier highlights the growing problems, shortcuts and abuses prevalent in the Dutch academic system of research.  

In the Netherlands there is an increasing distrust towards academic knowledge. Some even claim the academic world is in crisis and in need for a revolution. Five prominent Dutch scholars pose in their recently published position paper ‘Science in Transition’ (SIC) and homonymous website that the academic system is corrupt and requires thorough change.

For Professor Jan Vandenbroucke of the Leiden University Medical Center it is very clear. “Everything goes wrong”, he begins at his contribution on drug research. Research funded by pharmaceutical companies conclude for example much more often that the drug invented by the sponsor is the best option, than research paid with public money does.

“Not because the researchers are corrupt, but because the system is corrupted,” explains Vandenbroucke. An example: scientists are paid to compare the new drug with a placebo, while companies by publicly funded research usually compare it with an already existing drug.

Compare it with drinking Red Bull: who consumes energy drinks is more alert on the road, according to research funded by Red Bull. You may be able to achieve the same level of alertness by drinking a cup of coffee, but that comparison is not made. Red Bull may be the best choice compared to drinks without caffeine, but compared to coffee that may not be the case.

Another problem is that the researchers are judged on their number of publications and the number of times that their articles are cited by colleagues. That provokes a variety of strategies: scientists would for example agree to quote each other’s articles to keep their scores up. Professors would sometimes abuse their statuses to get their names on other people’s publications while they have barely contributed to it.

Shared responsibility

The Dutch website Science In Transition provides recommendations to achieve a new, better way of doing science, by for instance informing the audience about the uncertainty of scientific outcomes, research methods and the mundane motives of scientists. In addition, the organization would like to see new standards of evaluation being formulated. It wants to get rid of quantitative rankings based that give rise to competition and cheating.

SIC argues that journalism as well should play a greater role in science. Journalists should investigate the practice of the scientific work and the mechanisms behind it. Huub Dijstelbloem, one of the initiators of SIC: “Press officers maintain the image of noble scientists and indubitable knowledge, because that is what “sells” best. Journalists go along with it due to a lack of time and money.”

“There is no ready-made solution. We now seem to be the rebels of the system, but I’m also part of it,” recognizes Frank Miedema, Dean and Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors of the University Medical Center in Utrecht. “I cannot change it all at once by myself.” Revolution is a shared responsibility, emphasizes Miedema. “We’re all in this together.”

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