Wetenschap - 31 oktober 2002

In search of the middle ground

In search of the middle ground

"I have been disappointed to see that at Wageningen University professors are regarded as somewhat insignificant middle managers who are expected to implement questionable policies that are presented for discussion, but for which the manner of implementation has clearly been previously decided." Professor Ken Giller expressed this criticism in his inaugural lecture on Thursday 24 October.

The new professor of Plant Production Systems, successor to Professor Rudy Rabbinge, believes the current 'business' and 'market-led' focus is too short-term a view for a university. According to him, Wageningen should place stronger emphasis on the quality of science and its relevance to society, as this will give the university a stronger position for the future than a market-led approach.

Giller, an English agronomist who was previously professor at the Universities of Zimbabwe and London, is surprised at the position of Wageningen professors. Due to decentralisation, they are expected to deal personally with finance and personnel matters concerning their staff, often not more than five or ten permanent employees, which Giller finds 'highly inefficient'. Giller is also surprised at the little financial responsibility given to professors. He believes that many costs of research and education end up at the 'leerstoelgroep' while professors have no say in university policies that cause these costs. Giller said in his lecture: "My perhaps naive but persistent view is that the role of administration and management within the university is to give academics the space and time to innovate and develop their science rather than to keep us busy with infinite streams of paper."

Giller is well known for his research on the role of leguminous plants in nitrogen fixation in African agriculture. In his inaugural lecture, the new professor pledged to work on the understanding of plant production systems in their widest context and to seek collaboration with both the social and natural sciences in Wageningen. He also said that academics have a responsibility to engage in public debates. When Africa is in the news, for example, the message is either extremely negative B famine and ecological destruction B or alternatively, the news is purely positive and tells of the ability of poor African farmers to adapt to higher population pressures. As Giller put it: "The uncomfortable truth is that both stances can be true. Vastly different settings can be found within relatively small areas." This calls for a more nuanced view to be presented to the larger public, and academics have a responsibility there, believes Giller.

"We should temper our enthusiasm to grab the headlines, as policies are made on gut feelings," he comments. Giller stresses that pleading for a middle ground is not a plea for mediocrity, but instead acceptance that no single discipline can lay claim to the truth. | J.T.

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