In recent years WUR has been steadily concentrating its research on the Wageningen campus. The various ‘outposts’ were under pressure. But the institution has now started investing in regional collaboration again. No longer in experimental farms, but as a participant in ‘living labs’.
Text Albert Sikkema illustration Alfred Heikamp
Our full name may be Wageningen University & Research, but WUR is present all over the Netherlands. Besides the Wageningen campus, you’ll find ‘Wageningen’ researchers in Randwijk, Lelystad, Den Haag, Bleiswijk, Leeuwarden, Sterksel, Hengelo in Gelderland, IJmuiden, Den Helder and Yerseke (see map). Not to mention a number of regional offices and smaller experimental farms.
A nice list, but shorter than it used to be. Ten years ago, WUR had four more experimental farms for research on pigs and cows. Those have been sold off. And fewer people are working in the remaining outlying branches. In 2018, 800 of WUR’s 5000 staff worked outside Wageningen; in 2014, the figure was 950, show statistics from the Corporate Human Resources department. And although the figure for the previous year are not available, it is known to be even higher.
The drop in the number of staff working outside Wageningen is largely due to two relocations. Firstly, Wageningen Livestock Research moved from Lelystad to Wageningen in 2014. This institute, with its staff of 200, made this move to strengthen its collaboration with others within WUR. Secondly, Wageningen Economic Research (WEcR) is slowly moving to Wageningen. Originally based in The Hague, this 250-strong institute has been appointing more and more staff in Wageningen, and about 75 of its staff work there now. ‘We are heading for a situation in which 50 per cent work in The Hague and 50 per cent in Wageningen,’ says Martijn Hackmann, Director of Operations for the Social Sciences Group. Here too, the aim is better collaboration with other groups within WUR.
It has been a difficult few years for the applied research programmes in the ‘outposts’. Budgets shrank due to government cuts and the abolition of the agricultural product boards, and several institutes and experimental farms went through a rocky patch.
Wageningen Marine Research in Yerseke almost closed down for lack of research assignments, and was saved at the eleventh hour by a Zeeland-based coalition of shellfish fisheries and other regional parties. The old model of contract research is being replaced by a new model in which Yerseke functions as a regional centre where clients and researchers decide on the research topics and financing together. A helpdesk was established, along with a ‘strippenkaart’ system in which clients buy ‘tickets’ for a number of research projects. That is working well, says regional manager Nathalie Steins. ‘The research is closer to practitioners now and has more of a support base.’
The new regional centre in Yerseke has also started presenting itself as an outpost of the whole of WUR. So, for example, if the public works directorate (Rijkswaterstaat) comes along with an economics question, the regional centre can easily bring in a WUR economist.
Meanwhile, Wageningen Economic Research has started positioning itself as a WUR outpost too. Since July 2018, WEcR has been located in the World Trade Centre in The Hague, walking distance from the ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, and from the Parliament. ‘Anyone from WUR who needs to be in The Hague can come and work here,’ says Martijn Hackman. ‘It’s easier now to quickly consult someone at the ministry. And the link with the ministry is very important.’
Criticism of WUR
These success stories in Yerseke and The Hague are one side of the coin; the other is the recent loss of five experimental farms for livestock. The pig innovation centre in Sterksel, in Brabant, will shut up shop in 2020. The experimental farms for cows and pigs in Zegveld, Heino, Lelystad and Raalte have already done so.
These closures brought down criticism on ‘Wageningen’ for no longer being visible in the region. There’s something in that criticism, says Frank Lenssinck, former head of the now closed experimental farm in Zegveld. In his view, WUR has thrown away its strong position in applied research. Agricultural suppliers such as Agrifirm, Schothorst and MS Schippers have started their own research centres and pushed WUR out of the market for applied research, says Lenssinck. ‘That is because WUR doesn’t understand how to market knowledge.’
Lenssinck is now head of the private Veenweiden Innovation Centre in Zegveld, the successor to the WUR experimental farm. He says there are ‘managers’ and there are ‘entrepreneurs’ in applied research. For the managers, the research centre is there for the benefit of the research. In that model, ‘the centre is at the back of the queue.’ The entrepreneurs, on the other hand, make the research serve the interests of the centre, says Lenssinck. They discuss assignments directly with external clients and then decide which research they can and want to ‘buy’ from WUR. With managers in charge, Lenssinck does not think WUR will recover its position in the region..
Director of the Animal Sciences Group Martin Scholten thinks Lenssinck’s ideas are outdated. ‘We no longer want our own experimental farms where we do restricted sectoral research, and which also have to compete with other research businesses. That is not how it’s done nowadays.’
Sterksel is closing, says Scholten, because the facility was old. ‘We couldn’t and didn’t want to keep it going anymore. We are now looking for partners with whom we can set up modern facilities for pig research, along the lines of the Dairy Campus in Leeuwarden.’ This research centre for a sustainable dairy supply chain is a joint initiative by WUR, local and regional governments, a large dairy company, an applied sciences university and a vocation college.
Collaboration with parties in the immediate vicinity: this is WUR’s key to maintaining its position in the region. To give a recent example: WUR wants to make the experimental farm De Marke in Hengelo Gld. part of a ‘living lab for circular agriculture’. De Marke, which has been monitoring the mineral cycle of dairy farms since 1990, will then play a broader role as part of a living lab in the Achterhoek region of the eastern Netherlands. Scholten: ‘We will make the research station available for the regional innovation agenda, with farmers, agri-food companies and educational institutions involved as well.’
Back in the region
So WUR is becoming more active outside of Wageningen, says Scholten. ‘In the new approach, we join regions as a knowledge partner, so as to take an integral view of agriculture, the landscape and society. Mainly working in the field.’ He wants to make use of the Dairy Campus in Leeuwarden as WUR’s base for participating in field projects on nature-inclusive circular agriculture in the north of the Netherlands. ‘That is broader than dairy cows. And it means we are back in the region.’