Science - May 16, 2013

'Science needs conflict'

When it comes to complex social issues, Wageningen UR does not always succeed in making clear what the role of the independent researcher is. This can create the impression that scientists are at the beck and call of their clients. The case of the Alterra whistle-blower 'X' is a textbook example of this, says Professor Johan Bouma.

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Was Wageningen UR guilty of doing 're- search to order' when it withheld a critical report on the measurement of ground­water levels by whistle-blower X two and a half years ago? The national ombudsman suggested as much in a recently published report, but according to Johan Bouma there was no question of it. And he should know, since he both reviewed X's offending report and assessed the latter's objection. 'X published eight articles about the measurement of ground­water levels, so he was not banned from publishing,' recalls Bouma. 'Nor is it the case that his superiors misled the public by withholding his publication. It was more a question of confusion and things beyond anyone's control, because publications with different findings came from the same research group.'
Bouma is emeritus professor of Soil Science, a member of Dutch academy of science KNAW, a former member of the WRR and a reviewer of several research programmes. He made his name with a publication on 'wicked problems', or highly complex social issues that lack a straightforward problem and solution, and involve many parties with very different opinions and points of view. Wicked problems include those of the intensive livestock sector, climate change, sustainable agriculture and bee deaths. 'Neither the research world nor public stakeholders have much idea how to tackle these sorts of issues,' says Bouma. 'Researchers like to solve problems and clients want a clear answer. And if one thing is clear, it is that there isn't one. There are only options, and each of the options involves weighing up the interests involved.'
Polder model
Water management in relation to nature and agriculture is another complex problem of this kind. Farmers want to keep groundwater levels low because that is better for the crop and for the soil's carrying capacity; nature managers, on the other hand, aim at high groundwater levels to avoid desiccation. There is no such thing as 'the' best ground­water level. The water level in an area is a compromise reached after consultations between all the stakeholders. In the end the solution emerges thanks to the Dutch polder model of consultation (named for its use to reach agreement on land reclamation projects). In this process the measurements of the groundwater level are just one of the contributions made by research.
This role can be difficult for researchers who take measurements in order to contribute the facts. This was the case with X, who discovered that in some sandy soils the measuring tubes used in the Netherlands are good for measuring deep groundwater levels but not for shallow ones. 'That was not just X's opinion, that was a fact,' says Bouma. A knowledge institution should applaud a ground-breaking discovery like this, says the professor. 'Critical research means undermining existing insights. Science needs conflict in order to make progress. But after that you have to get the scientists together and say: interesting discovery, but what does it mean for the wicked problem at stake here?' So the more conflicts there are behind closed doors, the better. But in public, close ranks and present a consistent story. That requires active research management.'
In X's case that discussion was not conducted properly, believes Bouma. Colleagues leveled the criticism that X generalized his conclusions baselessly to all sandy soils in the Netherlands. And for political reasons the client was reluctant to adjust existing ideas about the role of groundwater levels. But the client also posed a knowledge-related question: what is the advice of Wageningen experts now? Because at the time Alterra, X included, was producing contradictory information. 'There was a lack of a knowledge broker,' says Bouma. 'That is someone who is able to present the right knowledge at the right time to the right person in the right way. In short, someone who has a good grasp of the issues and a high social IQ.'
Knowledge broker
Researchers are not very interested in the knowledge broker's role, Bouma notices. They want to get on with research, measurements and publishing - understandably, since that is what they are judged by. It all has to happen fast, whereas it can often take decades to solve wicked problems. The standard response by universities - put another PhD student on the job - just does not work in such cases. There is too little time for serious consultations with civil servants, companies and campaigners to find out what their insights and scientific questions are. This leads to a declining role for the research world in the modern knowledge society, claims Bouma. Gone are the days of the old model, in which the ignorant knowledge seeker comes to the omniscient researcher for advice. In the current knowledge society, everyone is a knowledge holder.
A recent example of poor knowledge management is the research on the consequences for the ammonia policy of spraying fields with manure. 'That is a technical matter, as part of the wicked problem of creating sustainable agriculture. Injecting manure into the soil leads to relatively low ammonia emissions but under certain conditions, spraying can deliver the same low emissions, says Bouma. However, many years of research produced neither a consensus among Wageningen researchers, nor a coherent message for farmers and policemakers. 'And I blame myself as well for that, as I was one of the researchers.' A knowledge broker could have helped here too, says Bouma. Farmers' organizations recently sought direct contact with the lower house of the Dutch parliament, without involving researchers.
But there are also successful Wageningen projects in which researchers consult campaigners, farmers and policymakers from the start. From his own experience in the Transforum innovation programme, Bouma cites the Rondeel project in which researchers worked with partners to design a new barn for laying hens. That demands more than just getting together around the table, says Bouma. 'The research community has to find new ways to integrate the insights of other knowledge holders into research questions.' 

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