Spotlight reappears on university sponsoring
Swiss-based food multinational Nestlé is to be allowed a say over the filling of two academic Chairs that it has sponsored at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), it has been revealed.
Nestle subsidiary Nestec will participate in the appointments committee for these two “Nestlé Chairs” and will also get a veto right. Each appointment has to be approved by Nestec. This is according to a contract that has been seen by the Swiss news agency and the Zurich-based Wochenzeitung weekly. The rights go further than had previously been made public.
But the EPFL does not see Nestlé’s influence on the appointment of the two professors as problematic, spokesman Jérôme Grosse told the Swiss news agency. Research independence will not be affected, he maintained.
“We would change our policy if our independence was put into danger,” Grosse said. The contract is a standard one, which is also used in other universities across Switzerland and Europe.
It’s in the institute’s interest not to appoint a professor who would be opposed to the interests of the sponsor, as the Chair is in the sponsor’s name, he added, saying it was a “win-win situation”.
The original deal between Nestlé and the EPFL dates back to 2006 and was understood to include that Nestlé would cooperate on the deciding of research topics but that the professors would have academic freedom. Nestlé pays CHF5 million ($5.7 million) per Chair.
This is not the first time that private funding of state-run universities has been in the spotlight in Switzerland.
In December 2013 the University of Zurich was obliged to publish its once secret sponsoring contract with the UBS bank. The deal between the two, which dated to 2012, had caused some controversy both within and outside academic circles.
In March this year the data protection commissioner, responding to a request by the Wochenzeitung, recommended that the EPFL and the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich publish all their sponsorship contracts in addition to registers containing any links between staff and sponsors.
The issue of university sponsoring is also due to be discussed in a meeting of House of Representative’s Committee for Science, Education and Culture next week, to which institutes of higher education have been invited.
“They must tell us how they handle this, as everyone does it a bit differently,” said committee president Matthias Aebischer on Swiss Public Radio. “We want to ensure that certain standards are maintained.”
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