Science - September 22, 2005

Critical report: ‘Alterra tied to ministry’s apron strings’

Alterra is a puppet of the Ministry of Agriculture (LNV) and adjusts research results to fit what LNV wants to hear. This is the gist of hard-hitting criticisms in the public administration weekly Binnenlands Bestuur of 9 September.

Over half of Alterra’s business comes from LNV. Through its close ties to the government, most of Alterra’s research goes towards backing up existing policy, suggests Professor Kristof van Assche. Until recently Van Assche was a lecturer at the Land Use Planning Group, and is now professor at Minnesota State University in the US. Because Alterra has to stand on its own two legs there is a lot of pressure to produce results that the client wants to see, thinks Assche. ‘Scientific quality is under pressure because it is not the professor but the manager of the Sciences Group who has the last say,’ asserts Van Assche.

Hans van Waardenburg, director of a commercial research bureau is also critical: ‘Alterra gets assignments that others are equally capable of doing and more cheaply. But LNV prefers to use Alterra, with whom they have a long-standing relationship. Otherwise they have nothing to do, I have sometimes heard put forward as an argument.’

Jaap Dirkmaat, chairman of conservation organisation Das en Boom, describes Alterra research assignments as ‘chewing gum’. Their results can be moulded according to the client’s wishes, he says. ‘In an assignment from LNV, Alterra concluded that the A73 motorway would be bad for badgers, when it was an assignment from the Ministry of Water Management, the conclusions were exactly the opposite.’

Economist Barbara Baarsma who works for SEO Economic Research, an independent research institute, calculated that LNV only spends sixteen percent of its research budget in the ‘open market’; the rest goes to the DLO institutes at Wageningen UR. ‘The DLO institutes have a monopoly position. The result is that research is done that nobody really wants, just because there is a budget.

Knowledge Director Janneke Hoekstra at LNV sees no problem in the ‘long-term, demand-driven relation we have with DLO’. Managing director of Alterra Wallie Hoogendoorn defends Alterra in the article. ‘Alterra is not at all afraid of the market,’ she states. ‘We are less dependent on LNV than we used to be.’ She is not pleased with accusations that clients have too much influence on Alterra’s research results. ‘Our strength is our expertise and integrity. All our research is public. Researchers who shape their findings according to the wishes of the client can go elsewhere.’ / JT

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