Wetenschap - 1 januari 1970




WAU is now the largest, best equipped and staffed, and arguably the most successful agricultural university in Europe. WAU is like KLM in that it plays a role of which the international significance far outweighs its Dutch catchment area. The size of WAU is to be reduced by one-third. This intention is, in itself, not a point we are going to make a fuss about. After all, a KLM can continue to play its role also after essential economising and consolidation

But this cutback cannot be left to bureaucrats or committees of experts. It is a matter that can only be decided by us all in a participatory manner. It requires vision, a holistic perspective and anticipation of the future. It requires that we not only look at the means, but especially at the means in relation to the mission

1. WAU and the Eco-challenge

Jane Lubchenco, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has a problem. American science is running out of things to do. But, says Lubchenco in Science (1998, Vol. 279, 491-497), Entering the age of the environment provides a new societal contract for science. She calls the unprecedented human impact on the Earth the Eco-challenge

Increasingly erratic climate events, continued destruction of the ozone layer, further loss of bio-diversity, increasing threats to genetic integrity from estrogens, the continued build-up of toxic wastes in unexpected places, accelerating erosion, and many other threats to the natural resources and ecological services, including food and water, on which we depend, are reported weekly in such magazines as New Scientist and Scientific American. We believe that these ecological issues will increasingly determine human well-being and hence will dominate the agenda for collective action and expenditure

Yes, the global Eco-challenge is the key challenge for a KLM-WAU. Where else can one find such an assembly of applied ecological science? Where else can one find a university with such a mix of technical, economic and social sciences required for dealing with the anthropogenic nature of the eco-challenge?

And so what is WAU's, or rather WUR's, mandate at the moment? We quote the literal text from the recent publicity brochure

WUR wants to help people obtain sufficient and healthy food in a vital world by means of scientific research and education. To achieve this goal, WUR focuses on the responsible production and distribution of sufficient, high quality agricultural products, the careful management of soils, water and air, and the harmonious utilisation of the various functions of green space. WUR is developing into an organisation with a strong international orientation while retaining its solidarity with the agricultural sector in the Netherlands

Sufficient and healthy food, the harmonious utilisation of green space, and solidarity with the agricultural sector in the Netherlands. What a missed opportunity! What a limited vision compared to the global eco-challenge. This mission disqualifies us in three ways. First, very few brilliant and concerned international and Dutch students are going to be attracted by food production, green space and the Dutch agricultural sector. WAU has already experienced this at first hand when 70 students were attracted to Ecological Agriculture and 5 by Agronomy, when the change of name from Forestry to Forestry and Nature Conservation raised student numbers many fold

Secondly, we believe that very little financing will be available for research in food production. World food prices have consistently decreased in the past two decades. If there is shortage, it is more a result of poverty, market failure, war and weather events, than of lack of agricultural scientific knowledge. We believe WUR's mission got captured by the mandate of the International Consultative Group of Agricultural Research in which our star professors play glamour roles. The CGIAR currently faces many problems in finding funding

Thirdly, the very mention of the Dutch agricultural sector is enough to put most people off. It is a sector sunk in market-induced misery, with a bad reputation when it comes to things most of us want to believe in. This does not mean WUR should drop Dutch agriculture. In fact, WAU has a major responsibility to get it out its predicament. But that does not mean it should make food production its mission

If WAU cuts back by one-third on the basis of the WUR mission statement we are in deep trouble. WAU shall not be a KLM-WAU. It shall have chosen to go down with Dutch agriculture, and lose significance with every hectare of green space that gets covered by urban froth

2. WAU and global poverty

Combating poverty and inequality once offered a practical chance to do good. Things have changed. The poor massing on our Southern borders are a threat to the continuity of our own established order. Poverty and the destruction of global eco-systems go hand in hand

WAU has proven it is able to play an important role in poverty alleviation. Not that it is exceptionally good at it, but it has, at least, begun to learn. It is attracting large numbers of international students in this field. Yet poverty alleviation is not in the WUR mandate. The WUR is dominated by people who see themselves as market oriented managers for whom poverty holds no promise. For us, who see poverty in the South as a main threat to survival of the North, poverty alleviation is the second key issue, after the eco-challenge, that we must take into consideration when cutting back the WAU by a third

3. First implication: World University

A KLM-WAU is a player in the world. Of course, it would take some time to shift from our present spoon feeding by the Dutch taxpayer to international financing. But thanks to our KLM status we already occupy an international position to which most other European agricultural universities can only aspire at. Consolidating that international role and building on it must surely be a key consideration when cutting WAU's capacity by one third. If we cut out that international capacity and aim to be a Dutch agricultural university, we are finished

4. Second implication: three disciplinary pillars

The KLM-WAU has three disciplinary pillars

The technical sciences focus on developing the best technical means to attain given human ends. They operate in a world that follow natural laws, and operate under instrumental rationality. The challenge for the technical sciences is that, as Einstein put it, problems (such as the eco-challenge) cannot be solved with the same type of thinking that caused them

The economic sciences are axiomatic in the sense that they make assumptions about human goals and then build a body of knowledge on the implications of those assumptions for phenomena, such as markets, which emerge from the interaction of goal seeking human beings. The problem for the economic sciences is, first, that it is impossible to build a sustainable society on the basis of the selfish rational beings economics assumes people to be and, secondly, that most of the world's poverty is a result of global market failure

The social sciences develop interpretative approaches to human behaviour, and understandings of human behaviour based on collective rather than individual rationality. This helps us understand and deal with situations in which the axiomatic or normative approaches of the technologists or economists have broken down. The social sciences potentially have much to offer in terms of the collective cognitive systems people will need to develop to deal with the eco-challenge and global poverty. The problem of the social sciences is that they still have to convince everybody else that they have anything to offer

Quite a three-some! But at WAU we have the beginning of a trialogue among them. Our best students straddle two or more of these fundamentally different perspectives. We believe that the cutting knife should take into account that a KLM-WAU should maintain excellence in all three fields, and especially that it should maintain an ability to train triple-cross hybrid students and carry out triple-cross hybrid research. The possibility of doing a hybrid study is one of WAU's attractions in drawing intelligent and motivated international students to Wageningen. That capacity should be maintained. We believe that space for this aspect could be gained by collaborating with universities in Utrecht, Amsterdam and Nijmegen in the provision of basic science teaching. In Holland we tend to forget how close by everything is

5. Third implication: managing uncertainty

In the present efforts to amalgamate DLO and WAU it is understandable that WAU gets looked upon as another DLO institution that can be managed near-to-market and with a strong central direction by no-nonsense managers. That approach would, we feel, be the death of KLM-WAU. The world faces very high uncertainty. The WAU has a key role to play in dealing with the destruction of our eco-systems and increasing global inequality, but we do not yet know how. We have to play it by ear, by creativity, by inspiration and intuition, all the things our gung-ho managers hate. Yet, we as KLM-WAU must claim a niche for ourselves in which we can beg to differ with the big DLO institutes, in which we are allowed our own space as a university

It is not to save the WAU, but to maintain a capacity for solving world problems that has been gradually built over the years and that would be totally irresponsible to destroy just because the Dutch agricultural sector is not able to hold its own

An extensive version of the text is on the Wisp'r page on the internet: www.gcw.nl/wispr/