Organisation - March 15, 2018

Who decides what WUR researches?

Albert Sikkema

Should WUR scientists determine their own research agenda or should they follow the agendas of external financers? This is the question for the new strategic plan. Resource asked two nutrition researchers for their views.

What nutrition research should WUR be doing in the next few years to make a difference? This is something Harry Wichers, a scientist at Wageningen Food & Biobased Research, often reflects on. On the one hand, WUR tells Western consumers how they can eat and live more healthily: eat moderately, don’t overdo the sugar, salt and fat, and eat less processed food and more fibres.

However, Wichers notes that this advice is regularly at odds with the interests of food manufacturers. They don’t want people to eat less. On the contrary, they are busy expanding their networks of sales outlets. What is more, they are interested in new food technology such as printing foodstuffs. Wichers fails to see the health benefits of spinach ink coming out of the printer, but an innovation like that could get WUR a joint project with industrial partners. Nutritional advice telling people to cut down on consumption, however, does not bring in research funds, is insufficiently concrete and only delivers health benefits in the long term.

‘This goes to the heart of what we have been facing in nutritional science for years and which is starting to worry us more and more,’ says professor of Nutrition Sander Kersten. ‘Researchers prefer to decide for themselves what they study but if they need co-financing from the private sector, they will have to accommodate the private partner’s wishes to some extent. So the choice is already being made for us. We have to go along with that.’

Kersten says the trick is to successfully sell your own research ideas to companies. Wichers thinks that Wageningen Research should retain scope for investing in research itself as a way of keeping its knowledge appealing and cutting edge.

Strategic plan theme: domain

WUR wants to present a new strategic plan next autumn. Ten working groups are currently considering ten themes that will appear in that plan. One of them is the research domain. What are the topics where WUR aims to make a difference based on its own ambitions, and what are the topics where it can make a difference given the scientific agendas of ministries, companies and interest groups? Staff and students can discuss this at meetings organized by the ‘domain’ working group on 16 March, 28 March and 12 April, on all three days at 12:30 in Impulse.

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