Organisation - April 28, 2010

5 May: How free are you?

Joris Tielens

Next week, the Netherlands will celebrate 65 years of liberation. How free do we feel while at work? Do and may employees of Wageningen UR speak out about all and sultry?

Controlled working
How free are you?
Patrick Jansen
Researcher at the Forest Ecology and Forest Management Group, member of the editorial board of Resource  

'From the perspective of the liberation celebrations on 5 May, we do have a tremendous amount of freedom within Wageningen UR. Compared with scientists in countries such as China, people here have a lot of freedom in their work. This being said, freedom  nowadays is less than that ten years ago. I have come across situations myself where criticisms about the management are not welcomed. 
This is because the combination of a university and the DLO enterprise within Wageningen UR is a tough one. For a university, academic freedom is very important. There should be different opinions, with flurry and frenzy in between. Debate concerning the university's activities and room for criticisms should also be part and parcel of these. For DLO, however, it is important that everyone sees eye to eye in order to project a strong front to the outside world when promoting a product. These approaches don't go well hand in hand. 
If I were the boss, I would put more distance between the university and DLO, so that academic freedom can be maintained in the university. The university would again have a separate university paper filled with opinions and discussions, and DLO would have a separate customer newsletter. Although I am still fine with how Resource is doing now, the editorial board does face problems serving two different interests in one paper, and it faces a big risk of self-censorship.'

Herman Eijsackers
Chairman of the Academic Council which gives advice to the Executive Board

'I think everyone is free to say what he wants within the confines of his job responsibilities. But the term academic freedom is often used too flippantly such that things are said to the press without thinking about the consequences. Freedom should go with responsibility.
There are cases when a professor utters an opinion about a wide-ranging topic. Part of this comes from his teaching portfolio, but part of it is uttered outside the capacity of his job. Of all things, the journalist chooses to highlight the latter, giving the world a supposition from the mouth of a professor about a topic which he is not well-versed in. I won't give any examples, but they exist.
As Wageningen UR is involved in many issues important to society, a scientist may be asked for a comment on a social issue. You need to constantly ask yourself: is this within your field of expertise and how would your opinion be interpreted by society?

Bernd van der Meulen
Professor of the Law and Governance Group said recently during the Studium Generale that freedom of expression has to be protected.

'There is cause for concern, not just far away but also here. For example, I am concerned that the university responded to columnist Willem Koert via a lawyer's letter, which demanded that he should cease giving opinions about certain issues in future. This goes too far. Even incorporating Resource into corporate communications has contributed to the image that the management wants to exercise its influence on the contents of the articles. Finally, discussion has arisen about the extent to which employees are free to give their comments to the outside press, for example, in de Volkskrant. The board chairman said at that occasion that Wageningen UR should speak with one voice. Freedom of expression means giving room to other opinions, even if these are unpleasant. The university is a culture carrier. For me, human rights is the base of our culture. How can you tell foreign students what it's like to live in a democracy if we don't stand up for our freedom? The university therefore cannot permit itself to put up barriers to freedom in the way that an enterprise does.'

Evert Jacobsen
Professor of Plant Breeding
'You should always be allowed to say whatever you want to say, but in liaison with the organization which you belong to. That is, you should also be responsible towards your employer. I don't want to harm my organization. Within this liaison, I feel very free. There is even freedom to say things which are against the interests of Wageningen UR. But why would you want to do that? The freedom within this liaison can also be related to matters concerning patents and the freedom to publish. We do a lot of contract research, but it isn't true that scientists publish less because companies want to keep their research confidential. If you apply for a patent, you have to support it with scientific knowledge. After the patent has been submitted, this knowledge also gets published. So you may need to be careful prior to this process, but this is the case for all research work, even if there isn't going to be a patent. Because creative people are few, while copycats, many. If you brandish your research ideas too much, others will walk away with them.'
Niels Louwaars
Researcher in the Centre for Genetic Resources, has worked on a report for the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality to advise the House of Representatives about patent law.
'Patents do not pose a threat to publication. At the most, they cause a delay. Researchers should keep mum about the research subject if there is a possibility that Wageningen UR or her partners will apply for a patent. That means no showy presentations at congresses or heated debates with colleagues from outside. I see too that a freer exchange of ideas will be beneficial for science while too much fear of copycats can lead to a loss for research, all things considered.'