Organisation - December 3, 2009

Fury at Isric 'deportation'

Soil scientists at Isric were forced to move last week. Staff want a new management.

A soil sample ready for the Isric move
'On Wednesday afternoon we were told we had to move. On Thursday the removal vans were outside the door. This feels like deportation. We feel insulted!' Soil scientist Vincent van Engelen is furious. Last week the institute for soil information suddenly had to evacuate the Duivendaal building in the centre of Wageningen and move into building 116 on campus. Temporarily, as within three to six months Isric will either go back to its building or to one of the ESG buildings. The soil collections have not been moved and are inaccessible at present.
Isric had to cancel an international workshop on a global digital soil map, because the scientists suddenly had to pack their bags. Two Australians were already in Wageningen; two others were in the plane on their way. Isric worker Niels Batje: 'Quite apart from the financial damage, this damages our reputation. We're talking about people from the FAO and partners from America, Africa and Australia. Like this we don't prove ourselves to be reliable partners.'
Back in June, the buildings department warned the ESG that the Isric building does not meet safety requirements, including those for fire. After further enquiries, the ESG director opted for an emergency evacuation. In line with regulations, the management asked the advice of the employees' council (OR), but the OR wanted more information. Last week the extra time they asked for was up, and the move went ahead immediately.
Fire escape
According to ESG management, the costs of adapting the building would have been 150 thousand euros. Staff and the OR dispute that figure. Most of it is for an air filter to prevent organisms in soil samples getting out into the Dutch environment. According to the OR's information, the building can be brought up to fire safety standards for 15 thousand euros. A fire escape needs to be replaced and some new smoke alarms and escape route signs are needed.
Director Kees Slingerland bases the amount of 150 thousand euros on a report by the buildings department. 'I don't know the details of the 15 thousand euros estimate. If we can make the offices safe again for that amount, it could be a possible solution.'
The irritation is chiefly about the short notice given for the move. Isric worker Van Engelen: 'The buildings department had in mind moving in January, February or March, and not at 18 hours' notice.' The Wageningen fire brigade were not pressing for urgent action either. Commandant Jan-Willem Zijp: ┬┤There was certainly no question of evacuation.'
So why the hurry? Slingerland: 'The building has been declared unsafe. As manager, you are then in an untenable position of liability. The risk is incredibly small, I realize that. Anyone with any common sense knows it's likely that nothing will happen for years. But if something happens, management is liable. I understand that people are fed up, but we have acted as we felt we should.'
The workers have said they want a new management. Isric should have an international board that is less dependent on the ESG. According to the current statutes, the three Isric managers are all employed by the ESG.
A thousand soils
Isric has a valuable collection of a thousand impregnated soil samples, including red soil from Australia and desert sand from Mali. It has a staff of twenty four. In 2001 the institute was merged into Wageningen UR, and since 2002 there has been talk of a move to the campus, to strengthen the collaboration with the ESG.

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