Organisation - January 20, 2010

'There is still a world to win'

Aalt Dijkhuizen would like to chair the Executive Board for a third term. Government funding will fall during that period, so DLO will have to win more contracts and alumni will be called upon for fundraising.

Aalt Dijkhuizen

You have now been Chairman for eight years. What do you wish you had done differently?
'I am not the type to look back. I learn from the moment and focus mainly on the future. In broad terms: there is always room for improvement when it comes to communicating clearly with the organization, especially one as large as ours. I put a lot of effort into that aspect but it is never enough.' 
Are you up for a third term?
'I have given it a lot of thought and have come to the conclusion that I am just as motivated as I was on day one. I have said this to the Supervisory Board, who will decide on the matter in January or February.
'Sometimes people say: eight years; but I see it as two periods of four years. The first period was taken up with Focus 2006, a major, far-reaching reorganization that led to the departure of more than 750 people. The second term was all about innovation and growth. We acquired more students and more research projects, and regained our good name in the outside world. Two periods, with a world of difference.'
And what can we expect in the third term?
'I anticipate more problems with government funding. The government needs to cut the huge budget deficit caused by the financial crisis, and the long-term trend anyway is for government to gradually scale down its involvement. We will have to respond to that by tapping other sources of funding. The DLO institutes in particular will need to become even more commercially oriented. We also need to combine forces at the international level, as we have done with the French institute INRA. Finally, I am expecting good results from contact-based fundraising.'
Contact-based fundraising?
'Yes, this means alumni and other individuals connected with the university who are prepared to contribute their own money to ground-breaking research carried out by 'their' university. For example, rice is a crop that requires vast amounts of water. Wouldn't it be great if we could get together and develop a variety that requires little water and has a high yield? Or develop a livestock production method that is free of disease and CO 2 neutral?
The Wageningen Ambassadors are going to help us with this fundraising. Daan van Doorn has just given up his job as CEO of Vion to become chairman of the Fundraising Committee. The target is fifteen million euros in five years. But who knows? We could well get more, especially if we are able to come up with inspiring topics.'
Now that the Ministry of Agriculture is making cuts, DLO needs to get more funding from the market. Is downsizing an option?
'If we were operating in fields where funds were drying up, then we would indeed need to terminate those operations. But look at the global problems: climate issues, increasing food, water and energy shortages. We can make a significant contribution with our knowledge. It would be a crying shame if we were unable to put that knowledge to good use because of diminishing government involvement.'
DLO already does a lot of research on a contract basis.
'That's right, and that gives us a good foundation on which to build further. At the moment the usual form is a mix of public and private money. The challenge lies in what I call the real commissioning market. That could be business but it could also be a province or another ministry. 'There is still a world to win in that commissioning market. Especially if we go a step further down the knowledge chain. It is still too often the case that - like other knowledge institutions -  we present our findings scrupulously in a report and then go home. I see many companies, as well as ministries and the EU, that would like more help with the implementation. If you are really going to help apply new knowledge then you will also encounter new questions, which in turn can lead to new assignments. In this way you increase your involvement in the knowledge chain. I think Greenhouse Horticulture in Bleiswijk is a good example of that approach. There they have gone that one step further - and they now have more commissions than ever. A real achievement.'
But do researchers really want to do that?
'Getting closely involved in the actual implementation requires specific competences. You cannot expect one and the same individual to get a Spinoza prize on the one hand and sit down to discussions with farmers and market gardeners on the other hand. But that is not even necessary. In theory we already have all the different competences in house.'
How do you create safeguards to ensure it doesn't become routine work?
'I don't think that's necessary. You never get the situation where you develop something once and then roll out exactly the same thing ten times. The practical application is never the same twice; there are differences between sectors, businesses and countries. The link with the university helps in that respect too: innovations in fundamental research should lead to innovations in applied research.'