News - November 17, 2011

‘Market-based approach not for fundamental research'

Wageningen researchers feel they are being restricted in their ability to do fundamental research, say ten scientists in a letter published in this issue of Resource.

 The signatories complain about questions concerning business opportunities and common ground with the priority sectors policy in the application procedure for the latest IPOP programme Complex Adaptive Systems. They say this should be a case of university funding for fundamental research.
The signatories include Professors Ken Giller, Michiel Korthals, Wim Heijman, Anke Niehof and Jan Douwe van der Ploeg. The initiator is the agricultural economist Niek Koning: ‘The direct flow of funds from government is one of the few resources the university still has for fundamental research that is not dictated by business. It is therefore most surprising to see the priority sectors being referred to. This is making research funds from government subservient to the interests of business. I am afraid of the university being turned into a consultancy firm working for a financially strong market.'
Research of significance to society
Ruud Huirne, the Social Sciences Group director and one of those responsible for this funding, does not understand the complaint. ‘The business community is really not about to dictate things. I will make sure scientific quality is given priority. We are expecting to receive a lot of good proposals and we need information we can use to make a selection. The priority sectors question will only come into play if all other things are equal.' Huirne feels the protesters are stereotyping the top sectors policy. ‘It's not just about a financially strong market but also about research on sustainability and the third world.'
But it is a matter of principle for the scientists. They emphasize in their letter that the university should do research that is of significance to society and for which there is no demand from parties with money to spend. ‘Research of this kind does not automatically fit into the top sector policy. Our management have regularly assured us that there will always be space for non-commercial and non-policy-driven research within the university. This new criterion seems to take that space away. We therefore ask for it to be withdrawn.'
The likelihood of the criterion being scrapped seems small. Rector Martin Kropff supports the new standard. He let it be known via his spokesperson that: ‘From now on Dutch science will largely be funded through the top sectors policy. Consequently it is no bad thing to look at how to get extra funds from that source, especially for an institution that does Science for Impact.'