Wetenschap - 28 september 1995

Science in reality: research in practice

Science in reality: research in practice

Mahir from Sudan, Jorge Chavez Tafur from Peru, Yoyok Waluyo from Indonesia and Rusdi El-Kilani from Egypt have more in common than the fact that all four of them are PhD students in Wageningen. The four share a common opinion on why they are doing PhD research here in Wageningen instead of in their own country. Why a PhD and why in Wageningen are the questions to be answered.

Mahir, forestry lecturer at the University of Khartoum and on the brink of finishing his PhD thesis at the WAU Department of Agricultural Education, gives his view of science: We have this tale in Sudan about people consulting a spirit living in a tomb at the graveyard. Although nobody ever really meets anybody or anything in there, each of the persons will tell you that they actually did and that they received this or that advice." Mahir continues: Science is like that in a way: people in a room with pompous faces and with impressive titles but in reality the room can be pretty empty. In that respect there are easy ways to obtain a PhD. A PhD title can be very handy for one's career sometimes." Mahir shares that doing research as such never will be his job: Research is part of my strategy for life. I want to understand the bits of reality I face in day to day life." Jorge Chavez Tafur from Peru has just started his PhD in the same department. He shares the
same opinion as Mahir: My PhD will be about the possibilities of integrating agricultural extension with primary education in the rural areas of Peru. The advantage of doing this PhD research is that I can pursue what I'm really interested in. If I had a job with the same possibilities I would not have even considered starting a PhD."

The greatest advantages offered by Wageningen compared to the home countries are the availability of facilities and the up-to-date state of affairs of scientific literature, debates and communication. El-Kilani, about to finish his thesis at the Department of Meteorology, explains: The undergraduate courses offered at Cairo University can easily compete with Wageningen, but when it comes to an MSc or PhD research it turns out to be very difficult with regard to facilities and recent publications." Mahir argues that the same is true for the University of Khartoum. Multi-disciplinary research in particular is very difficult. An important reason for me to opt for a PhD abroad was the fact that I missed the human factor in my rather technical forestry study. It proved to be unacceptable to integrate that into PhD research at the forestry department."

Social concern

What is remarkable about the four students is the fact that their research concepts are based strongly on social concern. Waluyo, in the final stages of writing his thesis at the Department of Microbiology, explains, Soya bean is the second most important staple food in Indonesia after rice. The government is trying to achieve self-sufficiency in this crop. For this reason the area where soya beans are grown has had to be extended, and now includes areas of acid soils. To neutralise the soil the authorities started a liming campaign (applying chalk), but for individual peasants this is far too expensive to apply. My research now aims at improving the biological nitrogen fixation in order to sustain production on these marginal soils and provide a cheaper method compared to high-input technologies."

El-Kilani is designing an improved model of the exchange processes between the different layers of soil, plants and air: radiation, evaporation and interception. He explains his motivation: Everything that humans construct, like a house for instance, is based nowadays on thorough calculations, with safety margins and price aspects and all that. But if you look at ecosystems, it appears that we only understand a minimal amount of their complexity. Still, mankind makes use of then and, more importantly, is destroying them at high speed. If you want to manage and maintain ecosystems, you have to know how they operate."

Why Wageningen?

The reasons why the four PhD students came to Wageningen vary from purposeful to more or less coincidental. For Chavez Tafur it was not possible to do a PhD in Peru since university education is only available up to MSc level. He explains: WAU has a very good reputation at the University of Lima, so for me Wageningen was the logical place to go to. The fact that I am part in the Sandwich programme means that I shall spend part of my PhD research time in Peru, not just in Wageningen." Waluyo, employed at a research institute, went abroad since PhD fellowships in Indonesia are mainly awarded to government employees. Waluyo adds, A lot of articles and papers I read at the institute where I was working were written by people from WAU. That is how I got to know of Wageningen and why I applied for a fellowship to study here."

The main reason for Mahir and El-Kilani to come to Wageningen was the fact that Wageningen offers postgraduate courses of a high quality. All four students took MSc courses here before starting their PhD's. El-Kilani has heard about the plans of the Dutch Ministry of Education to cut back on available study time: It is a shame really because it is bad for quality in general, but especially for the top students. Students who work hard will always work hard, whether it is four years or six years, and the same goes for students who waste their time. It is important to realize, however, that two years will be missed."