More and more research at Wageningen University is being funded and determined by external financiers. This raises questions – who is steering Wageningen research? Resource took a good look at the doctoral research, which accounts for the lion’s share of scientific productivity at the university. Businesses are not the main financiers of this research. The EU and other public funding bodies are much more significant.
More and more research at Wageningen University is externally funded. That becomes very clear if we look at developments among PhD candidates, the worker bees of the university who carry out the lion’s share of the research. In the nineteen eighties there were less than 50 PhD graduations per year in Wageningen. Those graduates were members of the university staff who had written a thesis – there were no externally funded PhD trainee positions at that stage. In the decades since then the number of PhD graduates has grown to about 250 per year. And still only 40 to 50 of those 250 candidates are funded by the university itself. The rest have external funding.
‘Het aantal promovendi dat volledig door de universiteit wordt betaald uit eigen middelen, is de afgelopen 35 jaar ongeveer gelijk gebleven’, zegt promovendus Gab van Winkel, de leverancier van deze cijfers. ‘De enorme toename van het aantal promoties komt geheel door de toename van externe financiering.’ Dit beeld is heel herkenbaar: de gemiddelde Wageningse hoogleraar krijgt geld voor 2 docenten en 1 secretaresse en moet de rest van de onderzoeksgroep opbouwen via externe projecten. Die enorme toename van externe financiering is koren op de molen van actiegroepen en journalisten die menen dat bedrijven tegenwoordig een derde deel van het Wageningse onderzoekbudget betalen en dat er sprake is van grootschalige verstrengeling van academische en zakelijke belangen. Als dat waar is, dan moeten de nauwe banden tussen wetenschap en commercie zichtbaar worden in de machinekamer van de Wageningse onderzoekfabriek. Oftewel: bij het promotieonderzoek, want daar concentreert de externe financiering van de universiteit zich.
‘The number of PhD candidates that are entirely funded by the university from its own funds has stayed roughly the same over the past 35 years,’ says PhD candidate Gab van Winkel, who came up with these figures. ‘The enormous increase in the number of PhDs is entirely due to the increase in external funding.’ This is a familiar picture: the average Wageningen professor gets funding for 2 lecturers and one secretary and has to build up the rest of the research group through external projects. The massive increase in external financing is grist to the mill of activists and journalists who believe that companies are now paying for one third of the Wageningen research budget and that this constitutes a mixing up of academic and business interests on a large scale. If that is true, then the close links between science and commerce should be apparent in the engine room of the Wageningen research factory. In other words: in the PhD research, where the university’s external funding is concentrated.
Last year was an exceptional year, with 287 PhDs awarded in Wageningen. Very correctly, the source of funding for the research is mentioned in every thesis nowadays. That is how we know that as many as 244 PhDs (85%) were externally funded in 2014. Just 43 PhDs received government funding (from the university), and 15 of these were ‘sandwich PhDs’, co-financed by the partner university. Forty six PhDs were funded by research funding organization NWO, and 198 of them received project-based funding from external parties.
NWO is an external research financier which awards funding on the basis of the social relevance and academic quality of the research. Industrial financiers are a mixed bag, which we divide into several categories (see table 2). It is noteworthy that much of this project-base funding came from public financiers, the main one being the European Union, with 34 PhDs. These are mainly part of European research projects in which Wageningen collaborates with other European universities. In some cases, companies are involved in these EU projects too, but answerability to the public institution is always central. An EU PhD may also come out of a European research grant. The EU’s share is bigger than that of Dutch public funding bodies such as ministries, which funded 30 PhDs last year. Foreign government institutions, from European and non-European countries, financed almost as many PhDs as the Dutch government did.
But there is even more external public funding for PhD research. Last year Nuffic was a big financier, with 17 PhDs. And then there were non-profit organizations both at home and abroad, which account for another 12 PhDs. These include organizations such as the Dutch heart foundation and the Worldwide fund for nature. Lastly, 13 employees of DLO institutions got their PhDs at Wageningen last year. If we add up all the public financiers, we have already accounted for 130 of the 198 PhDs funded by external parties on a project basis. So where are the businesses?
An interesting category is the public-private sector PhD research, with 35 PhDs. These are research programmes carried out for the top technological institutions such as TTI Green genetics, the Centre for Biosystems Genomics (CBSG), the Top Institute Food and Nutrition (TIFN), and the water institute Wetsus. These are always programmes in which companies and researchers come up with the research topics and questions together. In other words: this is where the interests of the researchers and companies intertwine. They usually end up with fundamental research topics which benefit several companies. This is known as ‘pre-competitive research’ because the companies prefer to keep truly innovative research (developing a new variety of tomato or a water purification technique) in-house, where no one can look over their shoulder. The pre-competitive research is public, because the PhD candidate has to be able to publish it.
Secondly, we have the category of ‘private’, in which a single company takes on the financing of the PhD research. This is the case for 15 companies. In this case, the company can determine the direction of the research in one-to-one interaction with the professor without input from other companies or researchers.
So what kind of research are we talking about here? The technical company Feyecon wants more knowledge about algae production, the livestock breeding organization CRV wants to know more about the genetic factors in the fatty acid composition of milk, and the plant-breeding company RijkZwaan is looking for methods of identifying chromosome abnormalities in cauliflower. Enza Zaden wants to gain a better understanding of the physiology of lettuce, and Shell funded research into whether particular bacteria can grow on chlorate in the soil – knowledge which is important in oil extraction. These are not surprising topics that lie way outside the fields of the professors concerned.
But there are also a few PhD projects which could raise questions. Friesland Campina funded Agata Banaszewska’s study developing a decision support model for the valorization of milk. Agata worked both for Wageningen UR and for Friesland Campina, where she improved the planning process in order to get more value out of the milk. This dairy company was certainly the first to benefit from her insights, but the conclusions in her academic articles are public and applicable for the whole dairy industry.
A Unilever-funded PhD research could be seen in the same light. It looked into the influence of certain nutrients (phytosterols) on cardiovascular disease. Is Unilever getting research done here towards a potential health claim, and is the university allowing itself to be used to lend scientific weight to that claim? No, it becomes clear in the thesis, in which the researcher concludes that the link between the nutrient and cardiovascular disease ‘still has to be established definitively’.
It is not easy to find a thesis in which university research is demonstrably supporting business interests and working against the public good. The thesis which comes closest is the one about the 24/7 tomato in which Aaron Velez Ramirez goes in search of the genes for light tolerance in wild tomatoes. This is a public-private research project under the technological top institute Green Genetics, with plant-breeding company De Ruiter Zaden (later Monsanto) as the private financier. Velez Ramirez did a Master’s internship at Monsanto in Bergschenhoek and went on to do doctoral research in Wageningen for this company.
Monsanto had already applied for a patent on a gene package that was responsible for light tolerance before the research started. In the course of his research, Velez Ramirez identified the precise gene for light tolerance and did plant physiological tests in order to find out whether the genes influenced growth and tomato production. Thanks to the patent, it was Monsanto and not Wageningen University that owned the knowledge, and other companies are not free to make use of it in their programmes. So it is not publicly accessible.
This brings us to the agreements on ownership between the university and the business world in public-private research in the top institutes. TTI Green Genetics, which will cease to exist this year, always applies for patents itself and invites the relevant companies to take over the patent or apply for a license. Wageningen UR gets users rights, which means it can use the discovery free of charge in education and research. In other top institutes, such as CBSG and TIFN, the knowledge institution applies for the patent and the relevant companies get users’ rights.
We can divide the public-private research projects into the categories public or private on the basis of their patent policies. We count the handful of PhDs at Green Genetics as privately funded research, just like the 15 theses that were entirely funded by a company. Because in these project too, there was an agreement between the university and the financier that any patents would be in the name of the company. Roughly speaking, then, in 20 of the nearly 300 PhD studies, a company decided what would be done with the knowledge – although it was published in all cases. The conclusion is that the fixed research budget for the university that comes from the government has not grown in recent decades. This fits the picture that the government is cutting back on the universities’ core funding, as the VSNU has been saying for some time.
On the other hand, the government is making more and more research funding available through funds to which researchers must submit proposals. This explains the considerable growth in funding through the NWO, the EU, the ministry of Economic Affairs and other public financiers. They make up the lion’s share of external funding, with the government setting more and more conditions – for the involvement of the business world, for instance. This explains the large number of PhDs with public-private funding. The proportion of exclusively private financiers is small. The external financing of PhD research usually comes from a public organization and seldom from a company.
This picture is reflected in the research questions in the theses too. If you look at the topics of the last 100 thesis in 2014, you can see that the doctoral research is extremely diverse. The most common research fields are crop protection, nutrition, soil science, water management and the environment. In agricultural research there is more attention to animal welfare than to agricultural production, and the biobased economy is as well represented as food chemistry. What is more, the pile of theses aiming at improvements in African food production is not to be sneezed at. In short, science for impact? Certainly. Science for profit? Hardly at all.