UM complains to NWO
MAASTRICHT. A potential research project by SBE together with NWO and two large businesses has fallen through because of demands that would drastically restrict academic freedom. Secrecy was demanded with severe liability if breached. The Executive Board has complained to NWO about these practices.
The matter dates back to January, but the letter to NWO was only sent last week. It concerned a project by research funding organisation NWO together with Achmea and the Rabobank under the title Data-driven Research for Banking & Insurance. Researchers were invited to sign up for a workshop that was to lead to definite research projects, but were required to sign a non-disclosure agreement beforehand. This agreement was signed by two of the three SBE researchers involved. Without having read the text properly, it later appeared. Closer inspection at the faculty showed that it was not just a case of compulsory disclosure agreement of a very broad spectrum of ‘confidential information’ but also that the researchers would be held personally liable should this secrecy be breached. The Executive Board protests against this: “The contracting party is the UM, not the individual employees.”
Professor Jaap Bos from SBE, chairman of the department of Finance where the research was to be carried out: “In addition, fellow researchers were also sworn to secrecy for a total of five years and nobody in this group would be allowed to carry out other research in the same area. We refused and hence the contract fell through.”
Bos personally talked with NWO and was told that it wasn’t as bad as all that and that he should interpret the statement differently. Bos: “But the contract is a legal document, so it should be clear. Apart from that, they were not even talking about the IP, the intellectual property [copyright]; a separate contract would be needed for that. Achmea and Rabo wanted to retain a large portion of the IP, but our point of view is: if we carry out the research, then it is ours.”
The matter was discussed in a departments’ chairmen meeting, the faculty board was informed, as was the Executive Board at a later stage. Dean Philip Vergauwen: “This is a serious matter. The fact that you are not allowed to disclose sensitive business information is quite normal, but it happens more and more often these days that businesses set excessive demands and projects fall through because of that. In this case, it was in fact a competition clause: you are not allowed to work in the same field as a researcher. This needs to be discussed with NWO, on a national level with the rectors, with the government.”
Bos agrees: “It is official government policy to stimulate public-private research projects. This has advantages but also disadvantages, like in this instance. It would not be a bad idea if the government were to put this on its agenda.”
According to the UM’s letter, this kind of enforced disclosure agreement endangers the university’s task to serve the public’s interest through education and research.