MAASTRICHT. They were disguised but still recognisable: two Maastricht scientists who took part in the TV programme Rambam and portrayed as being prepared to provide positive research results for a charge. It concerned Chinese energy drinks. But the two, professors Fred Brouns and Rob Markus, feel that they were tricked. According to them, the quotes used were completely out of context.
“Scoundrels, bureaucrats and nonsense talk are paid back on an unequal footing,” writes BNNVARA-investigation programme Rambam on its website. In the programme broadcast on Thursday, 24 January, four presenters hunt for nutrition scientists. How independent are they in their research? Are they prepared to accept money in exchange for positive results? Three (blurred) scientists can be heard, of which two are suspected to be from Maastricht University: Fred Brouns and Rob Markus. After a denial by Markus and the UM spokesperson, confirmation follows. The names were also floating around within the UM.
In the programme, the two appear to be prepared to bend results to please commercial clients. That would be a serious violation of scientific integrity. Fred Brouns, emeritus professor of Health Food Innovation, says in Rambam: “Look, it is important to me to know what you want and how you are going to present this. It needs to be watertight.” Professor of Neuropsychology Rob Markus says that he wants to help with a proposal, the outcome of which would be an “effect as favourable as possible” of a certain beverage on behaviour. It is not always clear what questions preceded their answers and in which context things have been said.
In an interview with Observant, Markus expresses his frustration about Rambam's methods. “I spoke with them for an hour and a half and in that talk, I actually said the opposite. I am not in the least interested in research into energy drinks and I told them that I found their proposal to be less than honest. Besides, anyone who carries out honest research can never guarantee a positive outcome.”
Brouns accuses Rambam of cherry-picking: using fragments to enforce a story. “Where are the extremely critical remarks that I made about energy drinks?” And, “Quotes have been edited into an argument that greatly detracts from reality.”
“I would find it scandalous if scientists allowed themselves to be bribed by the industry, but I find this to be a form of fake news,” dean Anita Jansen from the Faculty of Psychology and Neurosciences reacted. “Rambam went too far, you don't know what they asked, how they edited. I find this to be a vulgar case of character assassination.”
According to Maartje van der Sande, production leader for Rambam, the statements were not taken out of context. Just before Observant went to press, she wrote that the programmers acted “truthfully”. “There was absolutely no question of framing or unfair journalism.” In addition, Van der Sande says, emeritus professor of Nutrition, Martijn Katan (VU Amsterdam), who commented in the programme on the scientists' statements, “saw the whole, unedited discussion that we held with the professor”. On the day of Rambam's broadcast, Katan twittered: "Just watched @rambamtv. About scientists who hire themselves out to commerce. Pathetic. (...) This must stop!" Rector Rianne Letschert will react in Observant next week. She had a conversation with the two professors yesterday.