Nieuws - 24 april 2013

The marriage of convenience that lasted

It was arguably the most significant date in the history of this organization: 29 April 1998. The day on which DLO and the university joined forces. It was an arranged marriage and not everybody was over the moon about it. But it has worked out pretty well.

Anyone studying here or who has just arrived to take up a job will find it hard to imagine that Wageningen UR might never have come into existence. It was a very close shave. If things had worked out differently the university would have been divided up between Utrecht and Nijmegen, and the DLO institutes would have been absorbed into science organizations TNO and NVWA. The current campus would have remained a bare landscape at the edge of Wageningen, a small town known beyond the Gelderland valley only as the scene of the capitulation of 1945.
This was a very realistic scenario back in 1995, when minister of Education Ritzen repeatedly suggesting merging the country's smallest university into the Utrecht faculty of Veterinary Sciences. In Ritzen's view there was no justification for the continued existence of a university which recruited less than 500 students a year. In May 1996, the board of Utrecht University wrote to Wageningen proposing an 'alliance'- mentioning in passing that the Utrecht faculty of veterinary science rejected as many students every year as started a degree in Wageningen. And if the agricultural university went to the ministry of Education, Culture and Science, thought the civil servants at the ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality (LNV) out loud, then the DLO institutes could be brought under the umbrella of TNO.
So were things going that badly? In short, yes. In the early nineties, the DLO institutes were running at a loss. What is now DLO was then 50 different foundations, ranging from big organizations such as ID Lelystad (animal health), IBN (forest and nature) and CPRO (crops) to small experimental farms for applied research on asparagus growing or pig farming. And they all had their own boards. They did not really work along commercial lines and the automatic and relatively substantial funding they got from the government made them lazy. Agriculture, moreover, had fallen out of fashion and research funding had dwindled. After the Second World War food produc­tion was a big priority but in the nineteen seventies and eighties its importance declined. A lot of negative things came to be associated with agriculture: overproduction, fertilizer surpluses, pesticides and insecticides. The ministry of LNV lost influence and funding for applied research and the former DLO institutes was cut back.
Even the agricultural university was affected - but with a name like that, what do you expect? Students stayed away. In the early nineteen eighties there were 300 first-years on the five degree programmes in the crop science side of the then agricultural university. By the mid-nineteen nineties, there were only 40. The lowest point was still to come: in 2004 a mere five first-years embarked on a plant sciences degree programme. Not a viable proposition.
Peper report
 DLO and the university were both leading a precarious existence and for those in the know it was clear they would have to join forces or go under. Dick de Zeeuw was one of the first to propose a merger. He knew what he was talking about, as he was director of the Directorate of Agricultural Research at the ministry from 1976 to 1985 and then chair of the board of the agricultural university for four years. He and ex-professor Rudy Rabbinge whispered the idea of a merger in the ears of agriculture minister Van Aartsen. In the autumn of 1995, Van Aartsen asked politician Bram Peper to come up with advice on the future of the 'knowledge infrastructure in the agriculture sector'. In May 1996, Peper produced a report - famous among Wageningen old hands - that would herald the birth of Wageningen UR.
After gathering information from universities, schools, companies, NGOs and the civil service, Peper concluded that 'the position of Dutch agriculture is under serious threat.' He saw a future for 'an agricultural knowledge centre in and around Wageningen' if it became a holding with two subsidiaries: one for scientific higher education and PhD research and the other for applied research. The second would include parts of DLO from both applied research and the agricultural university. Peper wanted to follow the American example and separate research from education: 'Because of their specific characteristics, the functions of education and research should be brought under separate units.' As it transpired, this was a bridge too far. A visionary plan, perhaps, but just dividing the university into a first phase (up to the Master's degree) and a second phase (PhD research) was going to entail extensive legal changes.
But a holding was created. The DLO institutes were cut loose from the ministry and brought under the same board of directors as the university. In 1997 Cees Veerman was appointed as the first chair of the board. On 29 April 1998, 15 years ago, Minister Van Aartsen appointed a supervisory board and signed the charter of what then still went by the name of Wageningen Knowledge Centre.

It was not all plain sailing though. The start was stormy, as Cees Veerman once let slip to top civil servant Tjibbe Joustra. 'The prevailing mood was one of depression,' the rector of the time, Bert Speelman, told Resource in 2008. On the work floor DLO staff viewed the university with jealousy as a place where scientists could do their research without worrying about the market. DLO managements saw the academics as unruly children sponging off the government. The university wanted nothing to do with the market at that time, and collaborating with businesses was believed to be damaging to the academic climate.
In the very same year the university's budget was cut by 25 million euros by the so-called purple coalition govern­ment. Four degree programmes and 25 chair groups were scrapped. There was a lot of uneasiness, leading to consultations and demonstrations. Further cuts of 50 million euros followed in 2003, mostly affecting DLO.
Nevertheless, optimism became to grow from that time. Together, DLO and the university succeeded with relative ease in acquiring large EU projects - and that was stimulating. And new buildings went up; on the campus a lot of research was concentrated in Gaia, Lumen and Atlas. Food production gained renewed importance in the public eye and this boosted interest in Wageningen degrees. Student recruitment began to pick up. The Forum went up on campus. Students appreciated Wage­ningen's small-scale education more and more. In 2005, the university reached the top of the rankings in the Dutch Higher Education Guide, and has stayed there ever since.
The organization grew. The three green applied sciences colleges at Velp, Leeuwarden and Deventer joined it (for a while at least). One big institute for shellfish, fisheries and coastal research was created under the umbrella of Wageningen UR: Imares. Joint projects with university researchers soon emerged.
There was still resistance, but in fewer places. In the social sciences, for example, integration hardly materialized: the agricultural economics institute LEI in The Hague and the Leeuwenborch barely know where to find each other. But for many university researchers in the Plant and Animal science groups, the fears that fundamental research could not thrive in a business environment proved unfounded. It helped that from 2006 the university got a prestigious Spinoza grant - the highest accolade for fundamental research in the Netherlands - three years in a row.
In 2010, 15 years after the last-ditch rescue plan proposals, Wageningen UR was seen in The Hague as a shining example of its top sector policy. In the Rutte I government agreement, praise was lavished on the 'Food Valley in Wageningen', while for the Rutte II government, the agriculture sector symbolizes the Netherlands' innovative potency.
And now, in 2013? The building sector is in the grip of a crisis but on the Wageningen campus we have been following the rise of Stoas applied sciences school, Fries­landCampina's white laboratory and the mighty Orion. Every day thousands of commuters crawl along the Mans­holtlaan, there is a traffic jam on the Churchillweg and a full 88 bus leaves Ede-Wageningen station every 10 minutes. All heading for the place which almost stayed a bare plain.
Plant Breeding, a dream marriage
Even at Plant Breeding there was animosity at the start. 'You thought I was a weirdo at first,' DLOer Ton de Nijs says to Professor Richard Visser. Visser could only see Den Nijs's weak points initially. He was a windbag and a know-all - at least that's what people said about him.
In Visser's office they look back together on the merger between the DLO unit and the Plant Breeding chair group. On the wall hangs a tongue-in-cheek Loesje poster: 'New trend: any business worth its salt has its own university.' Nowhere has integration been taken as far as it has at Plant Breeding. The professor is also the business unit manager. DLO and university researchers share offices. DLO staff do some teaching, and university researchers do some policy support research. Many staff don't know exactly who has a DLO contract and who has a WU one. It is only obvious on Good Friday, a compulsory day off at the university.
This marriage took place at the instigation of the current rector Martin Kropff, who was then director of Plant Sciences. He proposed clustering chair groups and business units.
In the initial talks it was a case of testing the waters. Den Nijs: 'It was a bit like hedgehogs having sex.' At the time he was leading DLO research on plant breeding. There was some contact, mainly through interns. 'We didn't tell them everything. I remember that our researcher Chris Mollema discovered an aroma that make the cucumber resistant to a pest insect. We wanted to patent it. So no way did we want Marcel Dicke, the professor of Entomology, to know anything about it!' Visser: 'And they saw anything we did with companies as an outright direct attack.'
The two groups merged in 2005 with Richard Visser at their head. 'I led it like a university group. Every researcher was registered and if possible became a member of a research groups, and everyone had to supervise PhD students.' The integration is now complete, he observes. 'At the start we still talked about us and them, but that has gone now. New people came in, and most of them probably don't even know that it used to be two separate departments.'