Beware of ethics-washing, warns The Young Academy

Companies are easily perceived as ethical when they collaborate with universities. Do not be misled, the leading researchers of The Young Academy write in a new report on academic freedom.

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The Young Academy describes the phenomenon, called ethics-washing, in their newly published report Space to Think. Companies help fund scientific research in the hope that the integrity of the scientists will reflect on them.

The term is reminiscent of the better-known words green-washing (polluting companies sponsoring green research) and pink-washing (raising the rainbow flag to appear progressive).

Doing the right things

The researchers behind The Young Academy’s report say a lot needs to be done to prevent ethics-washing and other questionable funding practices.Starting with consultations between university leaders, policymakers, researchers, educators and support staff.

Because it is not only important to ‘do things right’, but also to ‘do the right things’, the report summarises. Its authors call on university leaders and policymakers to make their financial considerations transparent.

They also focus on other forms of collaboration, where interests may be intertwined. As an example, the report mentions the research done at Wageningen University & Research, which is closely linked to the food industry.

The researchers behind the report believe human rights may also be the deciding factor. They draw attention to the collaboration between VU Amsterdam, University of Amsterdam and the Chinese tech-firm Huawei, which caused a commotion. According to critics, the company has been actively involved in the violation of human rights.


The researchers denounce the lack of transparency shown by universities. It is almost impossible to find out how their scientific research is actually funded. As a result, it becomes difficult to see how the funding flows affect the researchers’ freedom.

This is why there should be better guidelines for funding policy, for instance to monitor the balance between thematic research, based on special topics, and critical or curiosity-driven research. Furthermore, the researchers behind the report believe that scientists should have a greater say in funding policy. They advocate for democratisation.

Former members

The Young Academy is a group of top relatively young scientists and scholars, affiliated with the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). Its members are keenly attuned to ongoing political and administrative developments.

Former members currently occupy leading positions at various universities. One of them currently sits on the NWO (Dutch Research Council) Executive Board. Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf (OCW) is a former president of KNAW.

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