BASF’s university job sparks green fury over biased science

Chemicals REACH scientist.JPG

The Pesticide Action Network has accused the German chemicals company BASF of buying credibility for industry views within academia, after one of its employee was offered a professorship at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

BASF employee Bernhard van Ravenzwaay will officially get a professor seat at the Dutch agricultural university in exchange for BASF funding, PAN Europe said in a statement issued on Thursday (2 May).

The environmental organisation said van Ravenzwaay has a track record of studies published with a favourable outcome for the chemicals industry, suggesting his university research will be biased.

By acquiring a professorship in university, BASF might try to buy credibility for the views of industry, PAN Europe claimed.

On its website, Wageningen University says it is "the only university in the Netherlands to focus specifically on the theme ‘healthy food and living environment’."

"We do so by working closely together with governments and the business community," it adds, saying it wants to expand its leadership position in this field of research by fostering “close collaboration with governmental organisations, commercial businesses, fellow institutions and universities at home and abroad".

Unhealthy relations?

But the NGO pointed to what it describes as "unhealthy relations" in a range of joint industry programmes at Wageningen University.

Among these are its Green genetics programme (with Bayer and Syngenta), and another group within the university where researchers Theo Brock and Paul van den Brink showcased pesticide industry ways to relax water standards.

According to PAN Europe, Bayer and Syngenta partly paid for a professor chair at Wageningen for van den Brink in 2008. The NGO also highlighted the fact that Brock and van den Brink sit in EU-funded institutions such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

"The cases at Wageningen University are an example of a general development of university independence getting victim of company control. In less and less places in the world a real independent scientific opinion will be heard," Hans Muilerman, PAN Europe's chemicals officer said.

"A critical view on a pesticide will harm their chances of getting money from the pesticide industry. We see the same in agencies such as EFSA who are less and less able to recruit independent scientists. Governments should stop forcing universities to get their money from the market. Every link to industry is the end to independence," Muilerman added.

Improving science

BASF's senior manager for media relations, Bernhard Thier, defended the appointment at Wageningen.

Responding to EURACTIV, he said that close cooperation between academia and corporate R&D was extremely valuable for research as it helps find answers to the many important technological challenges society is facing.

"Today, BASF maintains more than 600 cooperation projects with universities, research institutes and companies. This substantial commitment to cooperation between academia and industry helps to improve quality and relevance of scientific research, and benefits many public and private organisations," Thier told EURACTIV.

Regarding PAN Europe's claims, Thier said that while maintaining his responsibilities as head of BASF’s Experimental Toxicology and Ecology Department, van Ravenzwaay has been lecturing at Wageningen University since 2012, without being paid by the school.

"In recognition of his valuable contribution to toxicology, the university has given him professor status. BASF welcomes this public recognition of his work and is proud of Dr van Ravenswaay's achievement, in this respect," Thier said.

The BASF spokesman said such collaborations have already proven fruitful in the past, mentioning Fritz Haber (from the University of Karlsruhe) and Carl Bosch ( from BASF), who together developed the Haber-Bosch process for making ammonia. The technology was successfully used in a large-scale production at BASF’s Ludwigshafen plant 100 years ago.

In 1931 this public-private partnership was also recognised in the form of a Nobel Prize in chemistry, Thier said.

Getting trust back

In Brussels, the European Commission too is concerned by the suspicions raised by industry's involvement in science, and suggested new ethical standards could help solve the issue.

>> Read: Top EU scientist calls for ethical standards to ease suspicion of industry

The chief scientific advisor to Commission President José Manuel Barroso, Anne Glover, stated in April that she was “extremely uncomfortable” witnessing the lack of trust in some quarters at the role of industry in science.

“Why are we so suspicious about industry? We suspect it is only interested in profit. We need to do something about that because companies employ people and are an integral part of the environment,” Glover said.

Barroso’s science advisor said the creation of a standard ethics code for business to apply to research could help repair this lack of trust.

“Why is it that science needs ethics but business does not?” Glover said.

The European Commission has set up a special advisory group on science and technology in February 2013, to provide independent information and advice on an array of scientific and technology issues.

>> Read: New group to advise Barroso on science, technology

The creation of the council and the earlier appointment of a staff science advisor reflect both the Commission's increasing focus on science and technology to boost European competitiveness, but also a need to deal with political minefields such as genetically modified crops, biofuels and shale gas.

The group's creation came 13 months after the appointment of the Commission's first scientific advisor.


NGOs and think tanks

  • Pesticide Action Network Europe (PAN Europe): Website

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