Buy your own professor

Buy your own professor

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Professorships financed by donated money are often controversial. Even though they’re sometimes questioned the university board think these professorships can, should, and will increase.

The latest case happened in 2011. Two people together donated 10 million SEK to Lund University for the establishment of a new professorship at the, at that time, the newly inaugurated Medicon village. The university accepts the money and calls for professor Göran Grosskopf to fill the spot. Everybody seems happy and satisfied, but is it all uncomplicated?

During the autumn of 2012, ten professors at the university closed around a polemical article in Svenska Dagbladet where they criticise psychology professor Etzel Cardena. He has been appointed a few years earlier after a donation by the Danish margarine factory-owner Poul Thorsen.

What has made the other professors upset though is not the private financing but that Cardenas research has involved, among other things, telepathy.

When Lund University chose to accept the 25 million SEK to establish the professorship in psychology in 2005 there were demands on the content of the research. The professor holding the position was not to pursue research on just anything, but on the branch of psychology called parapsychology – the branch that deals with inexplicable phenomena but above all on hypnosis.

According to the authors of the article Cardena is occupied with unscientific wooliness and many students agree.

According to vice-chancellor Per Eriksson it is inconceivable that the university would have accepted money to establish a professorship that is in any way not serious.

“We are extremely careful in cases like this, we have to think a great deal about our integrity”, he says.

Rather, the vice-chancellor points towards the fact that a privately financed professorship could be less controlled.

“Not having to apply for allowance for one’s research allows these professors to become more independent. At the medical faculty for example, 85 per cent of the research money is obtained while competing with others, it forces you to think about that all the time”, says Per Eriksson.

Mats Benner is a professor at the Research policy institute and is thus an expert on specifically the politics behind research. He doesn’t think that the case is so obvious.

How much influence can a donor have on a professorship?

“Ideally nothing, but it can probably vary a lot. The financiers have to give up all control for it to work out”, says Mats Brenner.

Professor Martin Ingvar  is a professor of integrative medicine at Karolinska institutet in Stockholm. His professorship was established with a donation under what some people assumed was the condition that the person holding the position had to research alternative medicine. The institue itself has always officiallt claimed that the donation has no influence over the field of research, but just the establishment of a research position in that field was controversial. And the case has continued to upset when supporters of alternative medicine started to accuse Ingvar of actually not performing research in the field of alternative medicine to a great extent. He was called an embezzler by one group of people while he was honoured by another for devoting his time to “real research”.

“Thirty years ago research was concentrated very much around the different kinds of professorships available.  Now there are many other ways to control it that are a little bit under the radar”, says Mats Benner.

With its good points and bad points he doesn’t think we have seen the last establishment of a professorship with donated money. At the prospect of Lund University’s 350-year anniversary there is hope from the university board anticipating new large donations. In the long run Benner thinks, not only that the number but the status of the donation financed professorships will increase.

“At American universities the donation financed professorships are the elite. I think that is something we will see more of in the future.”

In a previous version of this article, it was stated that proffesor Martin Ingvar had resigned his position at the Osher centre. This is not true. Professor Ingvar recently left his position as dean of research at Karolinska Institutet.

In addition, the institutes position on the question of donated research might have been percieved as unclear. This has been corrected.

Translation: Mia Söllwander

Text: Tor Gasslander

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