Science - October 28, 2004

Animal rights group against appointment

Animal rights campaign group Wakker Dier has protested to Wageningen University about the appointment of Dr Bert Urlings as Professor of Chain-driven animal production. Urlings is the director of quality control for the international meat production company Dumeco.

According to the director of Wakker Dier, Marianne Thieme, Urlings has commercial interests that make it impossible for him to conduct independent research. ‘He is going to be doing chain management research and Dumeco is an important player in the production chain.’ Wakker Dier is concerned that Urlings may abuse his position as professor to secure the interests of his employer. ‘Chain management is about mapping everything that goes on in the food chain, and the idea is to reassure consumers about the food they eat. Of course it’s in Dumeco’s interest that consumers do not get to hear any negative news about the system.’

Socialist Party (SP) member of parliament Krista van Velzen posed questions in the Dutch parliament this week about Urling’s appointment. She argued in favour of legislation to prevent conflicts of interest arising in the scientific community. ‘At present there are no rules governing scientific integrity, everyone just trusts in scientists because of their status. This appointment shows that conflict of interest is a real risk,’ she states on the SP website.

Urlings was not available for comment, and referred Wb to a Wageningen UR spokesperson, Bouke de Vos, who described the complaints from Wakker Dier as ‘nonsense’. ‘The appointment of a professor does not take place without a lot of guarantees, and this case is no exception.’ According to De Vos, external experts not only considered Urlings’ academic standing but also evaluated his other professorial qualities to assess his suitability for the job. ‘Before someone is appointed they are subject to intense scrutiny, and for this appointment we have used the same procedures as we do for all chair appointments. I wouldn’t know why this gentleman is not suitable. We have a number of professors who work elsewhere, and they are expected to be able to keep matters separate.’

According to Wakker Dier the procedure for Urlings’ appointment was unusual, as Dumeco, which finances the chair, also nominated the candidate. However, this procedure is normal for endowed chairs; the endower pays 7000 euros towards ‘infrastructure costs’ and also pays the salary of the professor. Wageningen has 36 endowed chairs, of which nine are paid for by commercial companies. / KV

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