Nieuws - 1 december 2011

Top sectors: opportunities and risks

Scoring on the new playing field

Rik Leemans
Work is under way on the nine top sectors. Within Wageningen UR the new distribution of research funding has met with both applause and concern. ‘In the medium term this is going to affect the quality of Dutch research.'
‘Never before have we had the luxury of a Dutch government that so expressly supports our sector', says Ernst van den Ende, director of the Plant Sciences Group (PSG). He is one of those who are inclined to see opportunities in the new government policy in which the business world is to be given a bigger role in the allocation of research funding. Of the nine top sectors, two are entirely within the ‘green' domain, says Van den Ende. And that's his domain. ‘Of course it is mainly a question of moving budget allocations around, but without ‘our' two top sectors, we would certainly have lost some funding sources.'
Van den Ende himself is closely involved in the top sector policy launched by minister Verhagen of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation. Scientists and companies are going to have to collaborate over the coming years to strengthen the Dutch knowledge infrastructure. That the business world is expected to play a leading role creates a new setting, and one which contains both opportunities and threats for Wageningen, indicates Van den Ende. ‘Government has dominated the agenda for years. Even then we sometimes found it hard to accept the choices made, or we had the idea that the policy was directionless', says the PSG director. ‘Now it's the business world's turn. That will undoubtedly cause some uneasiness, especially in research groups that feel threatened.'
Research spending by the various ministries, including that of the research organization NWO, has been pooled by the cabinet for use for nine top sectors. Pride of place is given to public-private partnerships. From now on, companies are asked to state their ambitions and the knowledge they need to realize them, and then the knowledge institutions can get to work. But those who call the tune must also foot the bill. Only when the business sector has shown its commitment, will the government follow suit. Eventually, in 2015, the government will contribute 150 euros for every 100 euros put on the table by the business world.
DLO research institutions will be particularly affected by this new policy. ‘In Wageningen we already know this trick, and we are used to collaborating with companies', says Van den Ende. ‘We are already used to listening to companies. That puts us 2-0 ahead of sectors in which that is not the case.' Within each top sector a ‘top team' has set to work to match the wishes of the business world with the research on offer. In each sector, this is intended to lead to one or more innovation contracts, which should come through the ministry's letterbox in The Hague by the end of December. Rector magnificus Martin Kropff is on the Agrifood team, Van den Ende on the Horticulture and Propagation Materials team. If all goes to the minister's plan, more money will be forthcoming from the business world, meaning more funding for research.
Tough talk
Yet Van den Ende does see the downsides too. Will this policy really produce more cash, for example? ‘This operation is being launched because it is in the government's interests to put the business world at the helm and get it to cough up 40 percent of the funding. There is a lot of tough talk about it but it remains to be seen whether the money is really forthcoming, and whether it has to be in cash or can also be a contribution in kind or in labour. This is not yet clear.'
Inadequate organization on the part of companies could also throw a spanner in the works, thinks Van den Ende. ‘Take Horticulture and Propagation Materials. The term ‘propagation materials' covers the big plant-breeding companies, which are used to investing in research and innovation. Many of the PPPs involving them can be continued without much effort, I think.' But it won't work like that in the Horticulture branch, foresees the PSG director. This sector is a conglomerate of about 40,000 small and medium entrepreneurs with a wide range of interests. Van den Ende: ‘At present there is still the product board, which raises funding for innovation, but that is facing severe cutbacks. If it no longer plays that role, then I think it will be hard to create a new form of collectivism and people's own interests are going to prevail.' And that makes it difficult to reach agreements on innovative research. This will be an even bigger problem in agriculture, which comes under the Agrifood top sector, according to Van den Ende's predictions. ‘There is much less of a tradition of investing in innovation there than there is in horticulture.'
Nevertheless, he does think the policy will prod companies to dip into their pockets. ‘The business world can now turn a lot of public research funding to its advantage. Companies will have to choose in the interests of the general public. If that doesn't happen, the minister will say: sorry, you missed your chance.'
Rik Leemans: ‘A few steps backwards for innovation in science'‘
This is not science policy, but industrial policy', says Rik Leemans, professor of Environmental Systems Analysis and chair of SENSE, the national research school for the social sciences. ‘Money that used to go to science will now go into the valorization of scientific research results for the benefit of the business world.' Climate change, biodiversity and sustainability do not appear anywhere in this policy, says Leemans. ‘It's all about themes which are important for a couple of big companies, not themes that matter for society at large'.
But even worse, in Leemans' view, is the way this policy will put much more of the funding into the last stage of innovation, namely the application of existing scientific knowledge. Because that is what commercial companies are willing to help fund. Researchers, on the other hand, are judged by their cutting-edge publications in scientific journals. ‘It is good to stimulate the application of knowledge, but not at the expense of the development of knowledge. In the medium term, this is going to harm the quality of Dutch scientific research.'
Erik van Seventer: ‘Agreements will have to be reached this year'
The biobased economy is specifically mentioned in the top sector policy as one of three overarching themes between the nine top sectors. A golden opportunity for Erik van Seventer, who leads the theme of the biobased economy in Wageningen UR. ‘There are certainly big opportunities here', says Van Seventer. ‘We are already working a lot with companies in successful PPPs. We can now show everything we are already doing and will make a strong impression compared with other knowledge institutions.' But Van Seventer also sees threats on the horizon. The capacity of DLO staff in terms of working hours is currently only linked to the agrifood and horticulture top sectors, whereas chemistry and energy are important to the biobased economy as well. And there are doubts as to whether several existing PPP projects will be able to continue under the top sector policy.
The process worries Van Seventer too. ‘It is not clear how decisions are made and where the money is to come from. The government needs to create clarity on this point once we are into the second phase. Because we need to be able to make arrangements.'

Ruud Huirne: ‘Companies benefit from the innovation drive too'
Ruud Huirne, director of the Social Sciences Group, sees the top sector policy largely as a source of opportunities.
‘There is plenty of attention to the socio-economic sciences in the plans.' Huirne indicates that the top sector policy was made to earn money, or as he puts it, ‘to help Dutch sectors to increase their earning capacity in collaboration with knowledge institutions.' It is logical that the social sciences should play a key role in this, thinks Huirne, not only in order to research how to market products and make money with them, but also to research the ecological footprint of products and develop initiatives in developing countries, for example via food chains. Huirne sees roles not only for the LEI but also for the CDI and the university. ‘There are good opportunities here for all Wageningen.'
‘The result is not clear yet but the signs are encouraging, says Huirne. He is not worried that companies will only think short-term. ‘Companies benefit from keeping the innovation drive going too.'

Francine Govers: ‘Are companies going to cough up the whole amount from now on?'

Francine Govers is uneasy about what the new policy will bring her. She is professor of Phytopathology at Wageningen University as well as programme director at the CBSG, the Centre for BioSystems Genomics. This Centre of Excellence, with a lot of Wageningen input, does a lot of basic, pre-competitive research on plants, much of it in consultation with potato and plant breeding companies, explains Govers.
‘Their financial contribution is around 10 percent, much less than the 40 percent asked for in the top sectors. Are companies going to cough up that whole amount? And if not, where is the money going to come from? Not from the NWO: that organization already has too little money and what it has is earmarked too.'
Govers thinks companies will be strongly inclined to invest in research that leads quickly to solutions, and not in the fundamental research which most of her PhD students and Postdocs are working on. ‘The CBSG received a positive evaluation, both for applications and valorization, and for scientific output. A dreadful shame if we have to give that up.'
DLO affected more than university
The emphasis on public-private cooperation especially affects Wageningen UR's DLO institutes. The core funding of the chair groups of Wageningen University is not affected by the policy. But many PhD students and postdocs participate in research projects that come under the top sectors.
DLO's financing is organized differently, explains Frank Bakema, head of the strategy section at Wageningen UR. ‘A major proportion of DLO's government funding is now being tied by the ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation (EL&I) to the top sectors. That research, worth 51 million euros last year, can only be continued if money is pumped into it by the business world as well', says Bakema.
There are exceptions, he says. These include Alterra's research on nature, landscape and biodiversity, the statutory research assignments that RIKILT carries out in the interests of food safety, research at the Central Veterinary Institute and the Dutch Centre for Genetic Resources, and research by IMARES on fish stocks. Funding for this research is reserved by the ministry of EL&I.
Rik Nijland and Joris Tielens