3 December 2018. Two young people enter Maastricht University’s UNS40 building: Sahil Amar Aïssa and Yora Rienstra. Rob Markus, Professor of Neuropsychology, doesn’t recognise them as presenters of the TV programme Rambam, broadcast by Dutch public broadcasting company BNNVARA. They pretend to be employees of a communications agency called Priority Publishing. A woman named Renée Goossens of this same company had previously emailed Markus, asking him if they could approach him for advice on establishing a ‘knowledge centre’ for research on an energy drink produced by a Chinese partner. “They wanted to put it in a positive light in the Netherlands”, says Markus. “It’s a strange question, but it’s not unusual for me to receive strange questions – secondary school students, for example, ask me for advice on their final projects – and, as always, I replied anyway. But I also immediately expressed my doubts. I didn’t have much time and I wondered what I had to do with it.” He only replied four days later. After some emailing back and forth, a date was set.
The conversation with the two employees of ‘Priority Publishing’, in his office in the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience, lasted at least one and a half hours, Markus recalls. It was an informal, pleasant conversation. Of course, he had no idea everything was being filmed by a hidden camera. The production manager of the programme later informed him of this by email – “in December or January, I don’t remember”, but definitely before he would appear on television. “The broadcast would be about the extent to which researchers are prepared to do incorrect research in exchange for payment. I called them; I thought it was vile. I said: ‘Didn’t you reach a dead end with me? Didn’t I say I’d never want to participate in that?’ Them: ‘You did want to participate.’ Me: ‘That’s not at all what we discussed during those one and a half hours’. They also mentioned that I would be unrecognisable, ‘there’s no way to deduce who you are’.” Markus brought the issue to UM spokesperson Gert van Doorn. “He told me to wait and see, expected it would be fine. I didn’t know Rambam, was hoping for honest journalism and thought: ‘Hopefully they’ll also show that I said I’d never want to do research for them in this area and would also never want to give advice or whatever in exchange for payment’.”
Why was Markus approached by Rambam?
It’s become the trademark of Rambam: undercover operations to expose issues that would otherwise have stayed under the radar. People are put on the spot in front of a hidden camera. But why was Markus approached? As of March 2015, he holds an endowed chair in Neuropsychology at UM, funded by the foundation Stichting Wetenschapsbeoefening. He’s in the Psychopharmacology department. His specialisation: the brain, stress, depression and the effects of nutrition. The latter is probably why the creators of Rambam targeted him: after all, what’s going on between industry and researchers studying food and nutrition? Can they be tempted into falsifying research results in exchange for money? Markus also appears in a short informative film on the website of knowledge centre Sugar & Nutrition (Kenniscentrum Suiker en Voeding). And it’s this knowledge centre where Rambam began their search, even following a training course and approaching UM researcher Fred Brouns (see boxout).
What did Rambam broadcast?
Thursday, 24 January 2019. Viewers around the Netherlands watch how a researcher is seemingly roped into working for commercial gain (the broadcast is no longer freely available and can only be watched via paid video service NPO Plus).
A literal transcript:
Rambam presenter Sahil Amar Aïssa to Markus: “Is it possible for us to, at least for a period of time, fund or sponsor part of the research and studies...”
“In exchange for which the probability that the outcome is as favourable to us as possible is highest.”
To which Markus replies: “Well, what you’re saying now isn’t different from how DSM, Unilever… all those companies go about it the same way.”
Voice-over: “Ah, we’re in good company. This is what the big fish do. So how would this work, exactly?”
Markus: “If there’s a question from you or whoever, you could design a study with this outcome – we want the effects of a certain type of drink on behaviour to be as favourable as possible. Then I can guide you in this and then I can write a proposal for it. And then I can adjust it in whichever way you find interesting. This is always possible, of course. It’s not a problem at all.”
Three weeks later. Markus would like to share his version of events. There’s a recording device on the table, “purchased a few days ago”. He has become distrustful, he admits.
We see a researcher seemingly selling his soul. How do you explain that?
“I was astounded by the phrases they’d taken from the conversation. The context has been completely removed, and it’s precisely the context in which I make clear the opposite: during our conversation I repeatedly told them I don’t do anything in exchange for payment, and I can still see the surprise on their faces. Why didn’t Rambam broadcast those fragments? I also said that I don’t want to participate in this at all; I think it’s first of all dishonest and second of all uninteresting, I don’t want do any research on market-like products. Why did they come to me in the first place, I also demanded to know. ‘Why not look for a knowledge centre in the Netherlands?’, I said.
“I also asked if I’d understood correctly that they really had the goal of boosting the image of an energy drink. And yes, that’s what they wanted to do. ‘But why, for heaven’s sake? Where’s the integrity in that?’ I said. ‘A knowledge centre should rely on honest research, not this kind of stuff – that’s completely unacceptable.’”
Why do you mention DSM and Unilever and say they would ‘go about it the same way’? Do you mean that they, too, offer researchers money in exchange for positive results?
“No! I mean they all want to highlight the positive aspects of the product. But I myself have never been approached by companies with that request. My phrasing there is clumsy, unfortunate. I do recognise myself in that: it’s an informal situation, I explain things, take my time, act as a teacher, am enthusiastic, don’t watch every word I say. And sure, I also understand that people have their doubts when I say this, about those companies, but people who know me know I didn’t mean it that way.”
And you offering to guide them in a study with ‘an as favourable as possible effect of a drink on behaviour’ as its outcome? How do you explain that?
“They repeatedly ask me if I can advise them on designing a study whose probability of positive effects is as high as possible. I say, also repeatedly: ‘You shouldn’t want that and it isn’t possible either.’ In honest research, a positive outcome can never be guaranteed. And doing honest research means having a sound methodological approach: randomised with a control group, certain group sizes, valid measuring instruments. I told them I’m willing to help them only with designing such a study, never with the study itself. So: focused on honest research. ‘Favourable’ perhaps wasn’t a good choice of words here, but what I mean is that a sound research design maximises the probability of finding effects that are actually present. You don’t report any results in a research proposal in the first place. I also repeatedly add that I’d only do it for free! If you want to practise honest journalism – so, what did someone actually mean with what they said – you have to look at the whole picture. The context tells the truth; a single sentence doesn’t.”
The question remains why you spent one and a half hours of your time on people who want to talk about the image of an energy drink.
“I always do that, with everyone, and it isn’t always about their energy drink either. Secondary school students also ask me the strangest questions, like ‘I want this or that outcome’. I don’t tell them to get out, either. On the contrary, I want to teach them something like that isn’t possible and why. It’s my core business to advise them on sound research, and I never want to be paid for that. Rambam clearly heard me say that, but they’re concealing it.”
And your remark about ‘adjusting a proposal’ shouldn’t be regarded as ‘scientifically unsound’ either?
Somewhat annoyed: “In science, adjusting a research design makes a lot of sense. Suppose you want to know whether your readers prefer to read Observant in print or digital form, and you approach me with that question. Then I’ll help you with your research methods. If you later realise you also want to take the experience of younger and older readers into account, I’ll have to add that part. That’s adjusting.”
What’s it worth to you to get your hands on the full one-and-a-half-hour recording in order to show you’re not to blame?
“If our university gets the real audio-visual recording, containing everything from beginning to end, I’ll be completely reassured. Because then you’ll hear and see what I’ve just told you! But then we’d have to be able to prove that it’s real – which I’m not convinced of. I also don’t want a selection of fragments. At the same time, I don’t know if I want to try to get my hands on the real recording. That’s also a matter for the university.”
But this is about your reputation, isn’t it?
“This has already unjustly tarnished my reputation to some extent, but I trust that people who know me and know what I’m like do know what’s really going on. It’s not important what only I want. This is also a matter for UM. I trust they’ll make a sound judgement about that. And to be honest, I’m not holding a grudge. I’m more interested in discussing with researchers how research funding can and should best be organised. Martijn Katan is right about that. In the Rambam broadcast, he says the government pushes researchers into the arms of industry because there simply isn’t enough money. Also, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) sometimes demands researchers work with industry, always under strict rules to exclude industry influence.”
Will you be more careful about accepting requests for advice from now on?
“Absolutely. I find this very upsetting and stressful; it’s been a terrible shock. It’s terrible when your integrity as a researcher is questioned. I have to learn not to get carried away in an informal, pleasant situation and to choose my words in such a way that they’re not open to various interpretations. But don’t forget this was a secretly recorded conversation, with leading questions and a premeditated intention to elicit certain statements. But it happened. My name is wrongfully being linked to something unpleasant. I’ll have to live with that.”