Science - February 12, 2004

The Wageningen approach: interactive, interdisciplinary systems thinking

Wageningen UR has a high reputation to maintain when it comes to thinking up practical solutions for complex problems. This is thanks to the collaboration that takes place between different disciplines and the contact between theory and practice, dubbed the Wageningen approach. But this approach needs new stimuli, as it does not just happen automatically. Professor Cees van Woerkum and Marianne van Dorp have been given a quarter of a million euros to change the organisation and promote the Wageningen approach.

An example of the Wageningen approach is the project Cows and Opportunities, which examined how to make dairy farming sustainable in environmental and economic terms. Scientists from different disciplines talked with dairy farmers, and noticed that the former were not used to listening to lay people, while it was essential for success. This is one of the examples cited in a book written by science journalist Leo Klep on the Wageningen approach. The success cases have in common that they are based on a systems approach that is interactive and interdisciplinary. Interactive refers to researchers having face-to-face contact with people involved with the practical side of things. Interdisciplinary means collaboration between arts and the natural and social sciences. A systems approach recognises that different aspects of a problem are related and use is made of this fact. Professor Rudy Rabbinge writes this in the introduction to Klep’s book. Rabbinge is chair of the think tank DOS (Sustainable Development and Systems Innovation) that commissioned Klep to write the book.

Professor Cees van Woerkum and Marianne van Dorp were asked by the Executive Board and the scientific directors of the five Sciences Groups to work out how the Wageningen approach can be translated into concrete organisational changes. Van Woerkum: “We’ve done enough thinking about the matter, now it’s time for action. We want to look at how we can make it easier for people to use the approach.” The current organisation structure is not conducive to collaboration between disciplines. An institute that wins a project prefers to put its own people to work on it, rather than hiring in people from other institutes. It costs professors from different chair groups more time and effort to jointly supervise a PhD student than individual supervision. Van Woerkum explains his idea here: “We want to offer a bonus here, so interdisciplinary supervision would get more money than mono-disciplinary supervision.”

Van Woerkum and Van Dorp are also in favour of rewarding researchers who address social issues, such as avian influenza. While Van Dorp’s salary comes out of the quarter-of-a-million budget, the money will also be used to stimulate more use of the Wageningen approach, by identifying success stories and using them as examples. Education at Wageningen UR should also be promoted as interdisciplinary. “The approach must become a selling point that we use for marketing Wageningen University. The ministry of agriculture has also made it clear that they stand behind the approach, and it also figures prominently in the strategic plan for Wageningen UR.” Klep’s book was presented to university rector Bert Speelman last week, who declared that it is time for action and not words.

Joris Tielens

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