News - September 11, 2014

Do we really listen?

Yvonne de Hilster

Researchers should pay more attention to what society wants and whether their work is accepted. Only then do innovations stand a chance of success. This is what Wageningen UR’s new president Louise Fresco said at the opening of the academic year. So don’t researchers already take society’s concerns sufficiently into account? Or could they do better? And if so, how?

Han Swinkels

Manager Pig Innovation Centre at Sterksel 

‘In recent years Wageningen has not paid much attention to messages from the wider community and civil society organizations. If you want to solve societal problems, you need to involve active representatives of society all the way down the line. What with the social media and people’s high levels of organization, it is quite easy to bring in the views of the public nowadays. At Sterksel, for example, we are now doing a study on keeping pigs without docked tails. Both animal rights activists and pig farmers are involved. We should do this across the board in Wageningen.’

Rosalie van Dam 

Researcher on citizen participation at Alterra 

‘What I sometimes notice is that a social component gets tacked on to the end of a technical study to make sure people swallow the results. Like that, dialogue functions as PR. That is a lost opportunity. Done properly, social participation can bring about innovation. What is more, it can help you do justice to the diversity in society. But researchers don’t have to now suddenly rush off to find out what questions the public have. You can see what is happening on the internet and the social media. And in my experience, people who really want something will make themselves known. Citizens’ initiatives come about precisely because people want to tackle something themselves.’

Aldrik Velders

Professor of BioNanotechnology 

‘We already take public concerns into account. You have to de-monstrate this in every research proposal you submit. But there is more to it than that. Research that might not seem relevant to society right now, may well be in the future. People don’t always realize that. Without fundamental research you are not ready for new questions, as we see now with the current outbreak of ebola. So scientists must make sure they keep one foot in projects of short-term relevance and the other in fundamental projects.’

Rik Leemans

Professor of Environmental Systems Analysis and Earth Systems Science 

‘We work on the big international problems facing society, such as the loss of biodiversity and climate adaptation. As scientists we are not responsible for the implementation of solutions, however. That is up to governments, businesses and civil society organizations. So we must always be in dialogue with these actors. That way they get to know the limits of the scientific methods and the uncertainties of the research results, as well as the consequences of the measures they take or the lack of them. And we pick up what the needs are in society. This often leads to highly appreciated, innovative cutting edge research. So Louise’s words are music to my ears.’ 

Arian Oostvogels

Poultry farmer in Achtmaal, North Brabant

‘As a producer you listen to the con-sumer and to scientists. Scientists are always developing something new and that is nice, but they sometimes seem to forget that it has to be affordable. The tricky thing about developing a new product is also that you are ahead of the market and you have to look for a demand for your product. If you could make a list of the different wishes of groups of consumers, you could give everyone what they want. But then consumers would have to be willing to pay for what they want.’ 

Eldert van Henten 

Professor of Agrotechnology 

‘The relation between food and technology is a sensitive issue for a lot of people. So good contact with society is certainly important. You can do that through debates or by involving representatives of society in the development of technology, as we do. If we have to wait for what comes out of a public debate before we can develop the technology for the big, urgent challenges in the agriculture sector, then we will simply be too late. For example, you can debate the use of robots in farming, but the reality is that already now there are not enough people wanting to work in the sector. It would be nice, too, if we were not assessed purely on our publications but were also appreciated for our social contacts and efforts.’

Leneke Pfeiffer

Coordinator Science Shop

‘From groups and organizations that come to us with a question I never get the idea that they feel they are  not heard, or that they think the university should already have picked up on their question itself. On the contrary, they are very glad of the possibilities Wa-geningen UR offers through the Science Shop. So we feel really supported by Fresco’s speech. By answering questions, researchers and students already engage in dialogue with all kinds of groups in society.’