It is not surprising that professors have additional jobs. They are also encouraged to apply their knowledge in society via other positions. But this must be done transparently, according to Nieuwsuur, so the interests professors have in addition to their scientific work will be clear. The university must also give permission for any ancillary position. This safeguards the independence of science and prevents conflicts of interest, like the influence by companies or lobby organizations with regard to the research questions or conclusions.
Nieuwsuur's research focused on the question whether the number of ancillary activities corresponded to what has been stated and not so much whether there is a conflict of interest. However, that subject was already addressed by Nieuwsuur in October last year, with Alzheimer's expert Philips Scheltens being confronted with a conflict of interest in his research due to his ancillary activities. Due to the wishes of a company he also worked for, he started to take extra lumbar punctures from patients while this was not necessary for the patients from a medical point of view.
Meaghan Polack is chairman of the PNN PhD association and in a response to Nieuwsuur she explains clearly how this can influence PhD students. “Professors are our bosses,” Polack explains. "They can therefore also make suggestions regarding the adjustment of our research. The results are then influenced step by step. And that can be beneficial for the professor himself, for example if he owns shares in a company that benefits from the results of that research."
Minister of Education Robbert Dijkgraaf finds the whole case disturbing and will talk to the universities, he said in a response. "I'd love to hear what they will do about it."
According to the latest figures, a total of 343 professors are employed at TU/e. Of those, 33.5 percent has one or more additional positions outside of the university. In principle, these are publicly visible on the research profiles of the professors, provided they have reported them. When you start to work at TU/e, you must declare your ancillary activities yourself in the HR system InSite. Your supervisor must then approve them. It is not possible to specify an additional position without an end date. Cursor submitted questions to the HR department about this system. Do they check whether the files are still up-to-date? If so, how does this take place and how do you prevent (future) secondary activities from disappearing from the system unjustly and unnoticed, because the end date requested by the system has passed? HR Director Mariska Brzözek points out the procedures in her answer, which Cursor summarized for readability purposes. “When one starts their employment, every employee is supposed to list any ancillary activities in the HR system InSite. After submitting those, they are sent to the direct manager (for advice), the director (for approval or disapproval) and HR for advice (for the tax impact if the ancillary activities are performed abroad).
Brzözek: “The subject is supposed to be discussed annually during the annual appraisal, as it is an explicit part of the annual appraisal form.” Nevertheless, it appears from the answer from the rector and professor Maarten Steinbuch later in this article, that there is no automatic check on ancillary positions that have already been entered, and they can therefore expire without being noticed.
Checking every professor's positions for conflicting interests is a monster job: we have around 7,000 professors working in the Netherlands. Nevertheless, at least a regular check could help to make the register correct, according to Nieuwsuur. Nieuwsuur found that only 4,200 professors have listed their additional jobs, sixty percent of the total number of professors in the Netherlands. A random sample was then taken among the other professors left, which showed that hundreds of professors had not listed their additional positions even though they had them. Information from professors who did report ancillary activities often turned out to be incorrect.
This is also the case with TU/e professor Maarten Steinbuch, one of the professors with (expired) ancillary positions. He will be commenting in more detail later in this article. Steinbuch: “I see that some things are no longer on the TU/e website because they have indeed expired.” This involves seven positions. “It is a clumsy system (InSite, ed.) in which you have to enter an end date for each position. I have yet to update that. So not everything is on the website. That is why I have indicated to Nieuwsuur that my LinkedIn profile is always completely up to date, in accordance with what should be in InSite. The suggestion that TU/e or an external body should check whether (the number of) ancillary positions is correct, is not relevant in Steinbuch's opinion. “That is the employee's job. I do think it is very relevant that everything that is visible on the website, is correct.”
There is still a difference of opinion between universities about whether financial interests such as shares also have to be reported. Experts argue that they should be, because professors with stakes in certain companies have different interests. At TU/e, it is not requested to report your shares.
The Nieuwsuur research also specifically referred to TU/e rector Frank Baaijens, as one of the university directors who had not fully listed their additional positions. The positions that were not specified concerned a directorship of the 4TU alliance and a directorship of Hoger Onderwijs voor Ouderen Brabant. The rector indicates in communication with Nieuwsuur, which Cursor has seen, that the first position is part of his duties as rector and that this is not an ancillary position and he has therefore not reported it. He says about the second position that it was registered, but that each position has an end date and this date had expired and was therefore no longer in the register. The rector says it's all fine now.
If you look at the professors with (a) listed ancillary position(s), the 4,200 professors in the Netherlands jointly hold 16,000 additional positions, an average of 3.8 per person. At TU/e, the Business Intelligence portal only shows how many professors have reported additional positions (115), not how many positions they have per person or in total. With a reported number of professors with ancillary positions of 33.5 percent, the TU/e is far below the national average of reported professors with ancillary positions.
Professor of Systems and Control Maarten Steinbuch seems to have most of the additional positions under his name: 19, of which 12 are visible on the TU/e website. What makes it so valuable to add those extra activities to an already busy career and life, we asked Steinbuch. “Some of the ancillary positions are part of a scientific career, such as a membership of an editorial board of a scientific journal," Steinbuch says. "In addition, some ancillary positions are very limited in terms of time investment, let’s say four meetings a year. There is also a difference between scientists at the end of their career and those at the beginning. At the end of your career, the added value of attracting even more PhD students and publishing even more, is much less. I have supervised 68 PhD students, it is now mainly up to the next generation.”
In addition to his professorship, Steinbuch is among other things also co-founder and shareholder of Eindhoven Medical Robotics, advisor to WorldEmp, chairman of the Supervisory Board of Sioux, board member at NWO and scientific director of Eindhoven Engine. “At the end of your career you have built a large network and now the time has come to pay it forward to society,” Steinbuch says. And he has tried to reduce the workload: “I partly resigned from TU/e and now work there three days a week. That gives me enough time for other activities.”
In academia, many experience a high workload, while many scientists also have ancillary positions in addition to their job as a researcher. “Work pressure is especially a problem when you are young and have to perform a lot to prove yourself,” Steinbuch says. “And then especially those extra positions that strengthen your scientific development are important.” Steinbuch does think carefully about the type of ancillary positions he chooses. He illustrates this with an example: “I was asked to become a ‘lijstduwer’ (someone to help a political party attract attention, ed.) for a party in the municipal council in Helmond. I've decided not to. Had I done that, I would have publicly chosen a political color as a scientist, that doesn't seem right to me. I want to be there for everyone.”