Collaboration is important if you need something you don't have
Dane Bicanic and his laser group specialise in rapid detection of low concentrations and thermal characteristics of all types of materials: from ammonia in soil moisture to fatty acids in margarine. Bicanic heads an international research group of physicists
The composition of the group changes, but most participants come regularly from Eastern Europe and spend time in Wageningen as a guest researcher. This collaboration results in some 25 publications each year
Bicanic and his group in the Dreijen complex have managed to build up a considerable laser laboratory with relatively little money. Bicanic started in 1986 with a laser photoacoustic apparatus for gases, which can be used to measure air pollution. Since then the laser lab has developed nine new measuring techniques and instruments, and is now capable of dealing not only with gases but also fluids and powders. They now study the structure of all types of agricultural products
We come up with techniques here that others don't have. We make prototypes, tells Bicanic. Lots of the apparatus here is made up of things other people have already discarded. We go around picking up obsolete pieces of equipment and take out the components we can use. That way you can make all sorts of things. I've done this a lot and I'm not planning on stopping - new optical parts cost a fortune.
Bicanic and his group often collaborate with other WAU research teams as well as with CPRO-DLO and RIKILT-DLO to develop techniques. Collaboration is the best way of getting things done. If you work with others it's much easier to get to grips with a problem and come up with something more than just standard solutions. This was how the group developed a new detector for measuring carotene concentrations in blood together with nutritionists. This one is a few hundred times as sensitive as traditional detectors. At present they are working on using spectroscopy to detect two conformations of fatty acids in foods such as margarine
Everyone in this lab shares the ideal of internationalism, of sharing ideas, relates Bicanic, who comes from Croatia, where he studied physics in Zagreb. I left my own country with the same idea. I went to study in the United States and thought I would be back home after a couple of years, but I'm still here in the Netherlands. Bicanic is the only staff researcher in the laser group which comes under the sub-department Agricultural Engineering and Physics. He relies on support from three technical assistants from the department, Edo Gerkema, Hennie Boshoven (see photo) and Kees van Asselt, as well as WAU technicians
We are known as the Wageningen group in the outside world. I'm not the only one: there are also about seven people from universities abroad who come here regularly, and Henk Jalink at CPRO-DLO. We publish a lot, usually 25 pieces a year. Bicanic points proudly to invitations to speak at congresses and lists the organisations where he has an advisory function. His colleagues also share the benefits: A guest researcher of mine from Rumania sits on an advisory board. That wouldn't have happened without the collaboration we have.
In total Bicanic has had about 40 guest researchers, And they keep coming back. Most of them come from Eastern Europe, but others have come from Iceland, the US and Brazil. What they all have in common is a great love of physics, laughs Bicanic. It can be a problem, because sometimes you have to do other things. But if you are busy with a group of friends you often don't want to stop, so we don't. We just go on, even at weekends. We live for science.
Since April 1997 Bicanic has been coordinator of an EU Copernicus programme, set up to encourage cooperation with Eastern Europe. That is the best recognition we've had. All the people who've helped me in the past are participating, and we are doing research into quality and processes of decay in food.
Otto Doka, from Hungary, in Wageningen for the fifth time, is currently spending two months measuring amounts of whey powder in milk powder using infrared light. Whey powder is a cheap raw material which is often illegally mixed into milk powder. In Hungary I can't get hold of a good infrared light source, and here Dane doesn't have the right cell to measure the powders. So I brought my home-made cell with me from Hungary, explains Doka. Collaboration is important if you need something you don't have.
Doka was in Wageningen last summer as well, and that was when he built his apparatus. Bicanic has also been to Hungary three times, but just for short visits. I've always got two million things to do here, explains Bicanic. They make a lot of use of e-mail. Doka is enjoying his stay here with the research group. In Hungary he is the only physicist at the Pannon Agricultural University. We are a poor department, and physics is not considered important for agricultural research. At home I have to go to another university if I want to talk to a physicist. Here we are all together.
Postdoctoral student Jurgen Gibkens from Germany (see photo) is here for a relatively long stay of nine months. He is studying the process of surface discolouration in margarine using a non-intrusive laser technique. Gibkens likes being part of such an international group, being able to discuss things with people from different backgrounds: not just about photoacoustics but also about what people think. Through all the contacts Dane has you can build up a wide network of international contacts yourself.
Private landownership no answer to soil degradation
Increased population pressure and the growing number of livestock have led to increasingly intensive land use in Burkina Faso. Some pieces of land are now permanently used for productive purposes. This pattern, however, has not led to any form of private ownership of land, contrary to predictions made by researchers in the past
Mark Breusers will be awarded his PhD on March 2 for his research on land use on the Central Plateau of Burkina Faso. Breusers describes a system in which nobody can make a permanent claim to a piece of land. Only the descendants of a village's founding ancestors, the tengbiise can lay claim to a yaab ziiga, literally translated a place of the ancestors. Outsiders may only use land if they are granted permission from the elders
The system described is extremely flexible in social terms. All villagers have the right to use as much agricultural land as they need in order to survive, as long as they behave well and are to be trusted. This usually means having family or in-laws in the village
This system also makes temporary migration to the Ivory Coast or elsewhere in Burkina Faso easier according to Breusers. Upon their return migrants know they will still be able to use land. This way the system functions as a social safety net
Breusers disagrees with opinion that the way to combat soil degradation in Burkina Faso is to introduce a law for private ownership of land. Among the government and international donors there is increasing talk of doing just this. The reasoning behind this idea is that farmers do not invest sufficiently in their land. This is because they have no certainty that they will be able to continue to use it in the future
Breusers doubts whether not owning land is the real reason for the lack of investment. He points to the very low profit margins for agriculture in the area. Breusers himself is in favour of legislation which takes existing social structures into account. (LKe)