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UCPH to consider ethics guidelines on who researchers can co-operate with

External cash — Researchers at the University of Copenhagen may now receive funding from anywhere as long as the funds do not come with restrictions to their freedom of research.

“As a rule there are no limits. But there may be special cases where we say no thanks.”

This is Kim Brinckmann, Deputy Director for Research and Innovation at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), and he is talking about researchers’ opportunities to receive cash for their research from companies, foundations and organisations.

Companies which produce oil, tobacco or weapons are therefore not excluded from making donations to research at UCPH. This also applies to having co-operation partners in countries that have problems living up to human rights.

According to Kim Brinckmann, UCPH management and the researchers’ both assess every single project based on academic criteria and common sense. In addition, there is help available from various codes and international conventions.

“That depends entirely on what the individual research project is about. It is not the case that we have blacklisted research areas, companies, organisations or countries beforehand,” says Kim Brinckmann.

UCPH does not want to invest ‘dirty’

The University’s Board of Directors passed in 2016 an ethical investment policy, which means that UCPH will not put its own money in companies where more than 5 per cent of the revenue comes from “activities in the form of search, extraction and refining of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) or in products for the offshore industry.”

UCPH also opted out of investments in electricity and heating companies, where more than half of production derives from the burning of coal, or invest in companies that take more than five per cent of their revenues from gambling, weapons or pornography.

This was after pressure from a group of employees and students who had gathered about 100 protest signatures against the UCPH investment policy.

It is relatively rare that we end up having to say no to a research collaboration for ethical reasons
Kim Brinckmann, Deputy Director for Research & Innovation at UCPH

Thomas Meinert Larsen, associate professor at the Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports was one of the initiators of the protests. He does not not believe, in principle, that there should be limits on who UCPH researchers can accept funds from, so long as the funds are allocated as so-called unrestricted grants with very few restrictions on the part of the donor. And so long as the UCPH standard requirements for research independence and rights to publication etc. are maintained.

“What you as a researcher and a university need to consider, however, is that when you say ‘yes’ to money, you also give legitimacy to the donor. This is something that may be politically problematic if the donor is controversial. I would think again if Russia or Saudi Arabia, or Exxon Mobile or the tobacco industry, offered me a million kroner to do a project. Even if it was as unrestricted grant, and I to a large extent were able to define the project. You need therefore, as a researcher, to take it on a case-by-case basis and, where appropriate, consult with your management. But the UCPH standard requirements for independence provide a good framework,” he says.

Considering guidelines

Kim Brinckmann says that some universities in North America, Australia and Europe have drawn up ethical guidelines, and that UCPH will also consider whether this is the way to go.

In some cases, donors also require that the university works from written ethical principles.

The University of Edinburgh has prepared a questionnaire which researchers are to complete and have approved by an ethical committee in advance of each research application.

Kim Brinckmann, Deputy Director for Research & Innovation at UCPH

KU Leuven, that like the University of Copenhagen and the University of Edinburgh is a member of the LERU alliance of research-intensive universities in Europe, has also drawn up guidelines in relation to its military research.

“At UCPH we have not yet decided whether this is the way to go. But we will keep an eye on developments in LERU universities and consider whether some general ethical principles will make it easier for researchers and managers,” says Kim Brinckmann.

UCPH is to launch a new Code of Conduct for good scientific practice in August, which also includes cooperation between researchers and external grant givers. There is also a Named Person scheme at UCPH, where researchers can ask for help on ethical questions. But at present, there are no similar rules on who the university may co-operate with.

Rarely says no

The section for Research & Innovation looks primarily at contracts where there are intellectual property rights at stake. Other agreements on research collaboration with external parties are prepared and checked at either the faculty or department level.

“It is a golden rule that nobody is allowed to sign a contract without having received approval from his or her manager. And all IP contracts have to go past the Tech Transfer Office. But it is relatively rare that we end up having to say no to research collaboration for ethical reasons,” the Deputy Director says and continues:

“I am only familiar with a handful of cases where this has happened. In one of the cases, for example, we were in doubt as to whether the company would end up producing something that we as a university could not vouch for.”

Kim Brinckmann adds that the preparation of ethical principles is not straightforward. On the one hand it is difficult to predict whether the research results can end up being controversial or abused. Secondly we must be careful not to exclude in advance any collaboration with researchers, companies, and countries that need to develop through new knowledge and new research results.

He is not aware of any ongoing projects which he believes that UCPH should decline.

You can see a complete list of all external contributors to projects in progress at UCPH here.

Read more about 15 thought-provoking contributors, from the US Army to the Danish Christmas Tree Association – here.

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