Organisation - June 4, 2015

Professors with sponsors

Roelof Kleis

More and more research at Wageningen University is being funded by external financiers. This raises questions. Who is steering Wageningen research? Resource took a look at the phenomenon of the externally funded special professor. One in three Wageningen professors is on the payroll elsewhere as well. The government, NGOs and the business world. In this story we focus on the business-sponsored professors. What do they do?

Joost van Neerven works as an immunologist for Friesland Campina. He cycles to the campus every day. But one day a week he does so with extra enthusiasm. In his own words, Wednesdays are a ‘treat’. Then he cycles past Friesland Campina to his second job in the Zodiac building. For two years now, Joost van Neerven has been special professor of Mucosal Immunity. Which means he studies how the immune system works in the upper respiratory tract. Van Neerven: ‘One day without stakeholders, project management, form-filling and all those things scientists would rather not have to do.’ Necessary things, perhaps, for doing research in a business setting, but things that sometimes put the brakes on innovative ideas. ‘I am a researcher. My affinity is with immunity and the mechanisms underlying it. I want to know how it works. At the university I can give that passion for science, for the substance of my work, free reign.’ To some extent this applies too, to Van Neerven’s colleague at Friesland Campina, Albert van der Padt, special professor of Sustainable Food Production. The ‘free spirit’ role at the university sounds familiar to Van der Padt. ‘You get one day a week to look deeper and to encourage young people to take their thinking one step further.’

Van Neerven and Van der Padt are two of the 72 professors by special appointment at Wageningen University. One in three professors at Wageningen are ‘special’. Special because of the way their chairs are financed. Special professors are funded by third parties: institutions, funds, associations, foundations, government bodies or the business world. The latter category is the subject of this story. Almost one in three of Wageningen’s special professors is on the payroll of a private company as well. They work for food companies Friesland Campina, Nestle and Unilever, for instance. But other branches are represented too, with animal feed company Nutreco, BASF and Shell all funding their ‘own’ Wageningen professors. These close links with the private sector regularly raise questions. Can you simply buy a chair in Wageningen? What do these professors actually do? And what does the university stand to gain?

Let one thing be quite clear: there is no question of institutions just being able to buy a university chair. This is clear from the procedure a candidate has to go through. Scientific expertise, the H index, teaching ability, the capacity to attract funding… very little is left to chance. The term ‘hobby professor’ certainly does not apply in Wageningen, explains executive board spokesperson Simon Vink. ‘That emphasis on quality is something the previous rector Martin Kropff really went for. Kropff wanted special professors to be evaluated in the same way as ordinary professors. Quality is the starting point.’

So it can take quite some time before the appointment is secured. For Van Neerven five years went by between the moment Huub Savelkoul first approached him - when he was on Van Neervan’s PhD committee - and his appointment. The delay was partly because Van Neerven did not have much experience of NWO grants. ‘I have worked in the business world ever since getting my PhD. You do not apply for so many grants there and you don’t apply to the same grant providers as you do if you work at a university.’ For colleague Van der Padt, a low H index stood in his way. ‘I had not published enough. But I worked for Friesland Campina for 13 years. I can’t shout the results of that work from the rooftops. The crux of food process engineering is: exactly how do you do it? And you can’t publish that because then your competitor can do it too.’ In the end it took five years for Van der Padt to get his chair, too.

About 9 percent of the 225 professors are financed by business

But things can move faster than that. Leo den Hartog (Sustainable Animal Nutrition in Production Chains) already had a substantial career at the university and DLO (Livestock Research) behind him when he was appointed special professor in September 2001, precisely one month after being appointed director of R&D at Nutreco. ‘There were discussions with both employers and neither of them saw the two simultaneous positions as a problem.’ Den Hartog is the elder statesman among the special professors, and is now into his third five-year term. This in itself is fairly unusual. An appointment as special professor is temporary. The appointment is for five years and can be extended, but this is by no means automatic. Of the 72 professors in 2011, 30 have since left for a range of different reasons. ‘The topic loses its relevance, the funding stops or they retire,’ explains spokesperson Simon Vink. ‘Or they don’t get through the evaluation.’

Special professors do the same work as other professors: research and teaching which adds to the standard package. And research that the financier could not do in-house. This makes the link with the financier obvious, but often more subtle than people think. For instance, process engineer Van der Padt, from Friesland Campina, does very little work at the university on milk. ‘That was a conscious choice. I didn’t want to be accused of only working for Friesland Campina here. I am in the Food Process Engineering chair group. My research focusses on the physics of separation systems. How can we manufacture products more sustainably? One of my PhD students, for example, is working on extracting proteins and starch from peas and soya beans. This is a question of preserving the functionality, the desirable characteristics of the product, using mild fractionation, without refining it to death. Other PhD students look at separation technologies of blends make up of high concentrations of agricultural materials (proteins, starch, fibres and salts). The link with Friesland Campina is the process engineering. The fundamental knowledge we build up here I can later translate into applications in dairy processes at Friesland Campina.’


One in three Wageningen professors are funded by third parties. Is that a lot? It is not easy to compare it with other universities. Few institutions have the data to hand. You are also comparing apples and oranges. TU Delft, for instance, does not have endowed professors as Wageningen does. In Delft part-timers are called part-time professors and are paid by the university. They make up one third of the 320 professors. Alongside their jobs at Delft they also work for other institutions or for businesses. TU Twente has unpaid part-time professors. So they work for nothing. Seventyfour of the university’s 242 professors, also about one in three, are in this category. Some of them are paid out of the University Fund. Others have a paid job as well. Of the 546 Groningen professors, 88 are special professors, but only one of those is funded by a company. It is a similar picture at the other universities, making the situation in Wageningen fairly unique. No other university in the Netherlands has as many professors directly funded by business.

Joost van Neerven’s immunity research, on the other hand, does have a direct link with milk. Epidemiological studies show that there is a link between drinking raw milk and a drop in allergies and infections. Van Neerven wants to understand how that works. ‘What is the underlying mechanism? How does nutrition cause an effect on the immune system in the upper respiratory tract? What are the advantages of raw milk and how can we then use them in terms of a product? That of course is the interesting part for Friesland Campina.’

In this work Van Neerven uses milk as a model system. But he is wary of being pigeonholed as a milk professor. ‘Milk is a logical choice of model system because these effects have been demonstrated in studies on raw milk. Raw milk has certain intrinsic characteristics which are good for the immune system. Please note, I am not saying that Friesland Campina products have that. A link between dairy and health is quickly drawn. But I am talking about raw milk and health. I am working on mechanisms. Of course, Friesland Campina is not going to start selling raw milk. That is not allowed at all. But in the long term you might be able to use this knowledge to manufacture baby foods which protect children better against infections.’

What goes on at the university is fundamental research, which companies can then apply to create new products. Any company can do that, because the knowledge is made public and is accessible to anyone. One nice concrete example is the study on pig feed by Nutreco professor Den Hartog. Thanks to breeding, sows have more a more piglets. The downside of that success is that variation within the litter increases. ‘You get heavy and light piglets, and more piglets that don’t make it. The light piglets have a hard time and do not do as well later,’ explains Den Hartog. ‘Why is that? Animals which lagged behind at a later stage turn out to have different eating habits. They eat more often, but smaller amounts at a time, shows a PhD study. That is the fundamental research which is accessible to anyone. The follow-up is our line of adapted feed for piglets, Milkiwean.’

Openness and transparency are essential

The nutrition of young animals is extremely important, explains Den Hartog. ‘“Life start sets life performance” is our slogan. A calf which grows just one gram more in its first two months gives five kilos more milk later, research by Cornell and Wageningen has shown. Follow-up research now aims to find out which metabolites are responsible for that and how you can steer the process using diet. All you really want to know is what is the optimal diet. Animals have become top sporters and that calls for precision diets. You can no longer get away with one kind of feed for them all.’ Better feed makes for healthier animals. And that is good for the animal, for the farmer and for the environment. ‘A farmer doesn’t want his pigs dying. Feed is a big expense. So feed conversion, the growth per kilo of feed, is important. In the past people sometimes reached for antibiotics as a preventive measure to keep the animals healthy. That shouldn’t happen. So an important research question is how you can achieve that intestinal health through better feed. And that is good for the environment at the same time. Better feed conversion means lower emissions of nitrogen and phosphate.’

Companies such as Nutreco and Friesland Campina need the university for these kinds of research. Den Hartog: ‘There are certain analytical techniques which we do not have in-house at Nutreco. What is more, the university has unique facilities such as climate chambers and you have the knowledge about different statistical models. Companies make the products but the development of the fundamental knowledge goes on at universities.’ Openness and transparency are essential here, says Den Hartog. ‘I have delivered 17 PhD graduates. Only the odd one was working for Nutreco. I always work with co-supervisors and assessors at the university. Everything we do is published in peer-reviewed journals. And we are not the only ones. Agrifirm, For Farmers and DSM have people in the chair group too.’

Collaboration with the business world is good business for the university. Van der Padt: ‘Process engineering at the university is the study of the process by the square millimeter. At Friesland Campina it’s about square metres. There is a big conversion process between those two. That used to be a standard part of the university course. In the Biotechnion at the Dreijen campus we had a lab in which you modelled complete processes, but we have lost that. I am going to bring back some of that systems thinking because I think the university falls short in that area. The university produces not just fundamental scientists but also people who will end up working in factories. I bring that knowledge and experience with me from Friesland Campina.’

Applied knowledge also sharpens the antennae for application-oriented thinking, says Van Neerven. ‘I often see interesting research which makes me wonder, okay, but what do you want to do with it? Where are you going to apply it? Wouldn’t you rather carry on with a different topic? Interaction with special professors can help make sure the university gets a better feel for that.’

Special professors enable the university to do more research and teaching. Den Hartog also stresses the contribution special professors make to networking. He is walking evidence of that. As director of R&D at Nutreco and professor at Wageningen he is in demand in the world of animal nutrition. Den Hartog is on the board of the top sector Agri Food, on various steering committees of European research programmes, and has led the WIAS graduate school for 10 years now. ‘Because I’ve been around for longer, I increasingly get drawn in to the role of strategic planner and advisor.’

But the various different hats he wears do not cause any problems. ‘You have to be very transparent in the way you deal with it. It is important to be open. I always tell people I am from Nutreco and from Wageningen UR. I am never secretive about that. When I am in Wageningen I help think through what is good for Wageningen. If I was only here to promote Nutreco, I would never have lasted as long. You can only damage trust once.’


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In the decade in which Martin Kropff was the professors’ boss, the landscape changed. The number of special professors increased by 20 percent. The number of personal professors doubled, as a direct result of tenure track. The number of regular professors, on the other hand, did not change – there were and are about 100 of them. There has been a visible shift within the group of special professors too: the number sponsored by businesses has doubled. This shift largely took place during Kropff’s first term. There was also a striking increase in the number of special professors funded by DLO research institutes: 25 now compared with 9 five years ago.