Wetenschap - 27 april 1995

Wageningen Part of International Academic Tour

Wageningen Part of International Academic Tour

A English PhD student spends time in Wageningen before heading to America and India.

Sandra Squires calls herself a guinea pig. As a social anthropologist from University College, London, she's one of very few candidates to have ever attempted a research project which requires gathering information and doing background work based on the expertise of various institutions and universities.

Sandra is now in Wageningen following plant breeding courses. In June she leaves for the University of Michigan State in the United States to learn more about the crop Cow Pea, through the Collaboration Research Support Programme (CRSP). She hopes that in November everything will be prepared for her field work in Bangalore, India. Outlining her proposed research, Sandra explains why Wageningen has been a part of her international itinerary: In England plant breeding is done at the microbiological level, and the focus is on improving the crop, or biotechnology."

I'm in Wageningen because it is still possible to talk about the whole plant here. As an anthropologist I've really had to do a lot of intensive training in areas which you could say are not exactly related to my background. I'm here on a kind of Erasmus thing, taking courses with the MSc students. But unlike Erasmus where you stay for an extended time, I've come up with an arrangement which really gives me a chance to focus on a unique training. I take whatever it is I need out a department and a programme." As Sandra sees it, The integration of disciplines is becoming more and more accepted. Research projects need to be interdisciplinary. So you go to London to get socialized and you come here to get technologized." Before continuing she pauses for a laugh, Thank God for E-mail, though. It has been the only way to communicate and organize such a complicated study tour. In fact, it has been easier to communicate with India t
han England."

In describing her research project, Sandra summarizes, What I'm trying to do is to look at the potential role which biotechnology could offer as a resource to poor, environmentally and socially marginalized female farmers in India. To do that I am going to interview scientific plant breeders at the Agricultural University in Bangalore, India. I want to ascertain whether male and female plant breeders differ in how they develop their notions of an ideal cow pea crop. To be honest, I'm not sure if its possible to differentiate between a male and female science, but I want to see whether there is a connection between the gender of the plant breeder and the ideal ideotype."

I guess you could say that I want to see how they handle the shift from thinking about a plant as an individual unit, to seeing an entire field as a unit, of which the plant is a part. The point is, if you want bottom-up research and improved crop variety, - which will be used by the user group, in my case female farmers, - then you have to find ways of understanding the communication process. Understanding how different plant breeders make different choices is essential to that communication. We already have lots of studies on the farmers and on the how to's of extension, but I want to look at the breeders and their impact on women farmers."

Neutral Theory

Aside from the academic work in Wageningen, the English candidate has had the opportunity to form her opinions about life in the Netherlands and studying in Wageningen. Being able to participate in various classroom settings has also led her to draw some conclusions as an outsider looking in, One of the things that has made an impression on me is that you get to be in classroom with so many people from different cultures. Most of those people are from developing countries and after a while I found myself wondering if what they were being taught was really so appropriate for their situations. It would seem that the ideology behind a lot of what gets taught is that the knowledge shared here comes from a theoretically neutral perspective, - a kind of given truth. This logic is that science is transferable and that it is possible to teach controllable commercial (greenhouse ideal condition mono-cropping) as if western agricultural techniques are suitable ev

I found myself wondering if it really is useful for MSc students to be taught this kind of thing. Wouldn't it be more academically challenging for the teaching staff to think more in terms of poly-cropping outside of the yield maximizing concepts? I mean this is a question of theory and practice. What are the realities facing a lot of these countries? The theoretically neutral techniques can require a lot of investment. Is that so neutral?"

Academic impressions aside, Sandra concludes, I have enjoyed life here despite the fact that the Netherlands nearly froze me, robbed me and tried to kill me." Stopping to laugh and cough she continues, Well, when I first got here, it was freezing and I had to cycle from where I was staying in Zetten to Wageningen and there was a lot of black ice. Since then I've moved into a student house in Wageningen where we've been burgled, and my computer was stolen with some important work on it. Besides catching a deathly cold, I could say life has been good. The red wine and the underwear at the Hema are cheap."