News - December 6, 2019

Companies have less influence, not more

The opening of Unilever’s R&D centre on Wageningen’s campus has led once again to concerns being voiced that WUR is becoming too close to the food industry. In practice, however, the trend is in the opposite direction: the university is doing less and less contract research for companies.

Every time a company opens an innovation centre on campus, worried Wageningen students and staff start warning about how the university is being influenced. That happened with the opening of FrieslandCampina’s Innovation Centre in 2013, and now Unilever is opening its brand-new Global Foods Centre on campus people are once again saying that Wageningen science is not independent and is too closely interwoven with the interests of businesses.

Follow the money

The figures, however, show the reverse trend. The university’s income from contract research has been falling for years. WUR’s annu al financial reports show that academic contract research declined by 24 million euros between 2013 and 2016. In 2013, the university secured 84 million euros in contract research but in 2016 it only received 60 million.

One year later, the figure was 59 million. The most interesting item in that contract research is the ‘bilateral market’, the one-on-one research projects for companies and organizations. That item fell too. The bilateral item was not specified in 2013, but it accounted for 50 million in 2014, 45 million in 2015, 39 million in 2017 and 41 million in 2018, compared with total revenue of 360 million euros.

Opgeheven topinstituten

The annual accounts do not give specific information on Wageningen’s research for Unilever but it is likely that this has fallen too. A significant pointer is that the university produced 35 PhD theses in 2013 on research for the ‘technological top institutes’, in which businesses and researchers jointly determined the research questions. These institutes were prime examples in which the interests of companies and the university were intertwined.

Take the Top Institute Food and Nutrition (TIFN), where the university collaborated with companies such as Unilever. But these top institutes have been closed down. That is one reason why contract research has fallen at WUR. Why does the notion persist that companies have so much influence? Possibly because public research funding organizations such as the Dutch Research Council and the EU increasingly demand co-financing by companies. Researchers complain about this but no one is criticizing the decline in contract research in Wageningen.