A scientist who has found his direction should persevere. ‘Not get
sidetracked. That is fatal,’ says departing professor of Nutrition and
Health Frans Kok. Personally, he is most proud of ‘his’ people. ‘Helping to create and inspire this group, that’s my principal contribution.’
Kok is retiring this year. He is officially leaving Wageningen UR on 15 October. With a conference and, of course, a drinks party. During preparations for his farewell, he reflects on his career. ‘Personally I’m not a really first-class scientist,’ says Kok. People of that calibre are rare in the Netherlands. ‘Hans Clevers and perhaps one or two others.’ His chief source of pride is the team he has gathered about him. ‘That I have helped create and inspire this group is my principal contribution,’ says Kok. ‘That train will soon be continuing on its way at full speed.’
While Kok was its head, the Division of Human Nutrition expanded from two to fi ve chair groups and started a cooperative alliance with the hospital in Ede. The range of the division’s scientific research grew too. Researchers now study our taste and odour senses in MRI scanners and how nutrition can be used to slow down cognitive decline. Moreover, the new fi eld known as nutrigenomics emerged, which examines how our genes and nutrition react to one another. Kok noticed this new direction in the late 1990s and introduced it in Wageningen.
How he spots promising new directions for nutrition science, Kok cannot say. That is intuition. ‘It is something that I read that makes me think: gosh!’ Right now he has that feeling about big data. As a scientist, when you decide to focus on a new subject like that, says Kok, you must persevere and not let anything distract you. ‘Not get sidetracked. That is fatal.’ Only by sticking to a direction, will you eventually reap the benefits. As evidence, Kok refers to the Eat2Move project that focuses on sport and nutrition. By lobbying endlessly he, and a team of others, managed to secure funding – and thus research. This is why he warns researchers to keep a level head. ‘You shouldn’t take every idea equally seriously that a Louise (Fresco, RR) might have,’ says Kok, ‘or blindly tag along behind a director who’s keen to have the upper hand in deciding the direction you take.’
This is why Kok is worried that the chance to be led by their curiosity is something that is increasingly unavailable to scientists, especially young ones. These days the research agenda is steered mainly by trade and industry. Kok is not against this in principle, as long as enough scope remains for ‘wild ideas’. But he is seeing too little of this. Which is a pity, especially for young talent. ‘Young people possess a great deal of creativity and we could do more with that.’
In view of his criticism of the influence of trade and industry, however, it is striking how capable Kok is at entering into cooperative alliances with companies. These account for some 30 percent of the revenue of Human Nutrition. This is partly pragmatism, says Kok. He can’t do anything about the fact that he works in the prevailing system, which means he relies on contract research. Given this, it is understandable that Kok cannot support the standpoint of Martijn Katan, emeritus professor of Nutrition at VU University Amsterdam, that food scientists should have no links at all with industry. He does not want to dismiss half the division. Moreover, where problems like obesity are concerned, Kok views trade and industry not only as part of the problem, but also as part of the solution.
Sometimes Kok sees the will in companies to really change things. ‘That isn’t just window dressing.’ And so he sees it as his civic duty to try to steer companies in the right direction. ‘If you can contribute to bringing down the content of the wrong fats in a bar of chocolate, to reducing portion sizes or to bonuses that depend in part on fostering public health, then you have earned your money for society.’
As a scientist, Kok is vulnerable to criticism about additional functions. For example, he is sometimes attacked for being the chairperson of the Beer Knowledge Institute, which is funded by breweries. Kok thinks the criticism cuts no ice. He believes that the institute provides reliable and well-considered information, does not evade the health risks and disapproves of, say, binge drinking. ‘If the breweries had tried to make me dance to their tune, I’d have stepped down long ago.’
For Kok, the coming months will be all about winding down. He is not a scientist who cannot walk away from his work. Once he retires, he will be doing odd jobs at home, going running and, especially, doing a lot of cycling; next year from Rome to the Netherlands. But in the coming months he will still be working in Wageningen at least one day a week. On things that need to be completed or that he has not previously got round to doing. And hopefully he will be able to do that in an office in the new Helix building, which will soon house all of Wageningen’s nutrition research. The result of one of the directions he has unceasingly persevered with since about 2000. Without getting sidetracked.
Photo: Sven Menschel
Frans Kok is regularly in the media, mainly debunking nutrition myths. For example, in the TV programme Nieuwsuur he recently criticized the trend of avoiding gluten. He was also a fi erce critic of Dr Frank, author of a diet book published in 2010. Kok has a low opinion of the many ‘charlatans and gurus’ who have made nutrition their business. ‘It is their marketing strategy to rebel against established science. They write a book about nutrition. Then a cook book along the same lines. That’s one way to earn a lot of money.’author of a diet book published in 2010. Kok has a low opinion of the many ‘charlatans and gurus’ who have made nutrition their business. ‘It is their marketing strategy to rebel against established science. They write a book about nutrition. Then a cook book along the same lines. That’s one way to earn a lot of money.’