German university says it will rewrite controversial funding deal

Georg Krausch, president of the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz in Germany.

Bernd Eßling

German university says it will rewrite controversial funding deal

In a surprise move, the president of the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz in Germany this week announced plans to overhaul controversial contracts governing the use of a €150 million donation from a philanthropic foundation. Critics have charged that the agreement gives the donor, the Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation in Mainz, too much control over publishing decisions and faculty appointments at the school’s Institute of Molecular Biology, which the foundation helped create in 2009.

The move, which could eventually influence similar funding arrangements at other German universities, only partly satisfies critics. They are pushing for greater transparency from universities and donors.

In a 4 July meeting with journalists, university President Georg Krausch conceded that contract provisions give the foundation the authority to veto faculty appointments made by the university, but said that was not the intent of the agreement, and that the foundation had never blocked an appointment. And he said language requiring the university to get prepublication consent from the foundation for press releases and “publications,” which could include research papers, was an “error.” The intent of such language, he said, was to ensure that research products were of good quality, not to give the funder control. Still, Krausch admitted that the provisions created a perception that the university was not free to act independently. “Throughout all these issues … you can interpret it as quality assurance or exercise of influence,” he said.

Krausch said the university will now work with foundation officials to revise the problematic language.

The regional research ministry, however, suggested such changes weren’t necessary. In a statement to ScienceInsider, the ministry that oversees research in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, where Mainz is located, noted that giving a funder the ability to veto faculty appointments would violate laws governing higher education and academic freedom. But it said the foundation's funding agreement didn’t appear to give the foundation that veto, and noted that “there was no appointment against the will of the university,” so “freedom of research and teaching are not affected.” Rhineland-Palatinate Science Minister Konrad Wolf in Mainz also stressed that the institute performs excellent science. “We can be proud of this work—and are deeply grateful to the foundation,” he said in a statement.

The ministry’s position is “incomprehensible,” says Michael Hartmer, the director of the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers in Bonn. The ministry does a disservice to science in defending the agreement, says Hartmer, who applauded Krausch’s decision to rewrite the deal.

The critics would like to see legislators take stronger action to regulate such deals, which have caused controversy in the past. In particular, they say universities should be required to disclose the details to the public. Eveline Lemke, a member of the Green Party that is a coalition partner of the state government, wants freedom of information laws revised so that they clearly apply to donor agreements. Critics note that the university had declined requests from some reporters to review the BIF agreement, leading to a lawsuit that prompted the university to give all reporters equal access to the documents.

Funding conditions should be transparent “to the highest possible level,” says René Röspel, a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing coalition and member of the German parliament in Berlin. It would be the “biggest mistake possible” to hide the details of funding deals, he says. He proposes that the German Council of Science and Humanities, the highest science policy advisory body in the country, develops guidelines for cooperation between science and industry.

In a statement, the foundation said that it will continue to support outstanding basic research, and give “maximum freedom” to researchers. “We do not intend to interfere with any university regulation,” a spokesperson told ScienceInsider. “We now wait for potential changes the University of Mainz wishes to make.”