The UvA created the “appearance of a conflict of interest” in negotiations for a 2020 research collaboration with Netflix, according to outgoing education minister Robbert Dijkgraaf. UvA professor Dennis Weber, head of the research center involved, has since been relieved of his managerial duties.
The UvA Amsterdam Center for Tax Law (ACTL) was reported to have proposed a research collaboration with Netflix in 2020 whereby the streaming service would influence the research and its incorporation into education, news site Follow the Money wrote this summer. A memo revealed that the UvA wanted to help the streaming service “explain (to policymakers etc., ed.) how Netflix's specific business model works.” Netflix was under fire internationally for aggressive tax practices. The partnership would also give Netflix a voice “in academic discussions about how tax systems should regulate online media service providers.” Netflix paid €557,000 for the research as part of a larger study on tax systems for online services.
Member of Parliament Pieter Omtzigt asked questions in parliament. He wondered to what extent UvA researchers were using the memo to violate the Dutch code of conduct on scientific integrity, even though the “special benefits” mentioned in the memo ultimately did not end up in the contract with Netflix.
Outgoing Minister Dijkgraaf now responds that the researchers should not have offered the memo in this form, since it creates the “appearance of dependence and conflict of interest.” According to him, the ACTL is thus guilty of violating “the reputation not only of the specific department but also of the university as a whole.” The final agreement with Netflix does safeguard scientific integrity, Dijkgraaf stressed. Nevertheless, the minister entered into talks with the UvA on Thursday about scientific integrity.
“Worrying and inappropriate”
UvA dean of law André Nollkaemper also calls the memo in this form “inappropriate” and “too broadly worded.” According to him, the “special benefits” offered create the appearance of bias. “That is at odds with the Dutch code of scientific integrity. A careful analysis should reveal whether the code has actually been violated. But that the appearance is created is extremely undesirable. It is very important for science, but also to society and students, to make it clear that research is always independent.”
Consultancy group Ernst & Young and law firm Gatti Pavesi Bianchi Ludovici were also allegedly offered “special benefits” in negotiations several years ago. “This happened in the initial phase of the same research project,” says Nollkaemper. “The wordings in the memos differ, but again, there may appear to be a lack of independence.” So far, three memos have been reported where that would be the case.
In the meantime, the UvA has announced an internal review. The UvA Committee on Scientific Integrity must determine how the memos were compiled, who contributed what content, and to what extent the memos and research practices violate the integrity code, Nollkaemper said. The investigation should be completed within three months. ACTL director Dennis Weber, one of the authors of the Netflix memo, has been relieved of his duties as head of the research center where the project is being conducted.
One small foot in the UvA
This is not the first time the conversation about integrity has been held within the tax law department. Last year, Dijkgraaf already commissioned an independent committee to investigate whether the code of conduct for scientific integrity was still sufficient. This was partly in response to an article Folia published about the UvA tax law department reporting that there were indications that Zuidas offices exerted influence on publications of UvA employees.
Following the questions about dual roles in the department, three investigations were conducted that concluded, among other things, that no influence on offices could be demonstrated. Nevertheless, a set of measures was announced in January to safeguard the culture of integrity within the department, Nollkaemper said. “These measures are being implemented rigorously. They include looking for a supervisor who is a full-time member of the faculty, reducing the number of part-time positions, and actively working on the culture of integrity by having employees hold “dilemma conversations,” for example.
It could be said that the memos predate the new policy and are just now coming to light, the dean said. “The question is whether there is a common denominator between the two cases. The only obvious common denominator is that there are employees who have one foot in one organization and a relatively small foot in the university. We have to make sure that the standards of codes of integrity and scholarship are guaranteed, precisely for those who are not full-time employees of the university.”