By appointing Bart Gremmen as professor of Ethics in the Life Sciences, Wageningen UR is responding to the societal debate around sensitive subjects such as intensive livestock farming and genetic modification.
'Yes, that is a result of the clear wish of those two groups to operate together in this area. They are both dealing with disciplines on which there is public debate, on issues such as genetic modification of plants in the bio-industry.'
Why appoint a professor of Ethics in the Life Sciences right now?
'Some ethical input is needed. Not because nobody in Wageningen UR is thinking about the ethical implications of their work, but because the thinking is not systematic enough. As a result, ethical issues stay in the realm of personal opinion, whereas we as an organization should have a clear vision of which way we want to go.'
Wageningen has been under regular fire from various groups in the last year. For example, last year's professors' petition against the bio-industry. Is this an answer?
'It is not a specific response to that petition, but it is a response to the realization that many of the subjects studied in Wageningen are increasingly sensitive to the general public. You could see me as an interface between the public and science. I draw the attention of the researchers to the concerns of the general public. And I make sure that the scientists take a look at their research through the eyes of the public too.'
There appears to be a discrepancy between ethics in science and ethics in society. Where does that come from?
'Society often needs time to adjust to technical innovation, and to absorb its implications. For example, the public was very troubled by the way science kept brain-dead coma patients 'alive' for organ donations. The definition of 'dead' was then changed to 'lack of brain activity'. But it takes time before something like that really takes root in society. This concerns Wageningen as well.'
It seems that the general public and scientists do not always understand each other.
'Yes, you saw that in the bee controversy on the Zembla TV programme, for example. The researcher was doing applied research for DLO, whereas journalists treated him like a university researcher and took him to task about his academic peer-reviewed publications. Just try and explain that distinction to a lay person. But this is a question of communication. Important, but not my field.'
You are also going to work on the topic of ethics in the education programme.
'I certainly am. If you ask me, ethics should be on the curriculum, preferably in combination with subject-related knowledge. Properly embedded in the programme structure. My new combined chair makes that possible, I think. The next generation of Wageningen students will be better trained in thinking through the ethical aspects of their subject.'
Bart (H.G.J.) Gremmen (b. Oss, 1956) graduated (cum laude) in Philosophy at Radboud University Nijmegen and obtained his PhD from the University of Twente, with Professor Arie Rip as supervisor, on the subject of the uses of science in society. Since 1989 he has been associate professor at the Applied Philosophy chair group at Wageningen University. He is director of META, the Centre for Methodical Ethics and Technology Assessment at Wageningen University, as well as programme leader on Society and Genomics at the Centre for Biosystems Genomics in Wageningen.