Science - March 13, 2008

Varied programme for university’s ninetieth anniversary

Wageningen University’s ninetieth anniversary celebrations on Friday 7 March were colourful and varied. The day included a symposium on science and good governance, lectures on the biofuel controversy, awarding of titles and prizes, interspersed with classical music and the unveiling of a sculpture. Despite the absence of the guest of honour, minister of agriculture Gerda Verburg, attendance was high.

Honorary doctor Daniel Pauly receives his ceremonial <em>kappa</em> from the rector magnificus Martin Kropff during the ninetieth anniversary celebrations.
The birthday celebrations started with a symposium on how science can contribute to good governance. The speakers included the two scientists who received honorary doctorates, fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly and molecular biologist David Baulcombe. Pauly described the over-exploitation of the world’s oceans and was sombre in his outlook. ‘We know what to do about it, but we don’t do it.’ According to the honorary doctor, the seas are being overexploited, but fishers – ‘the last cowboys’ – get away with it. It’s a vicious circle that consumers in the North are hardly aware of because of the worldwide transport of fish. Pauly is very critical of the advice of western nutritionists to eat more fish. ‘This constitutes a problem in Africa, where people have no choice.’

Baulcombe described the societal importance of genetic modification for medicine and agriculture. Nevertheless he is pleased that there is heated debate on the subject. ‘It might mean a delay in implementation of fifteen years, but we have to persuade people we are really doing a good thing. Not because there’s money to be made, but because it will make the world a better place.’

The anniversary celebrations took place – for the first time – in the hall in Forum. According to the rector magnificus Martin Kropff, the new building reflects the changed relationship: ‘The students used to have to go to their professor on their bike. Now it’s the other way round: Forum belongs to the students and the professors have to go to them.’

The theme of the day was ‘Food or fuel’. Agriculture minister Verburg, who was unable to attend because of the weekly ministers’ meeting, sent a short video message on the subject of energy crops: ‘In times of scarcity we have to produce food.’ The permanent secretary for agriculture André van der Zande also indicated that the EU ten percent biofuel objective by 2020 will probably have to be adjusted downwards.

In his keynote speech, professor of environmental policy Arthur Mol stated that ‘biofuels can endanger the environment and the poor. Hence we need fair fuels’. Which fuels should be labelled as fair is not only a question of science but also depends on the power play between economics, politics and ethics. According to Mol, Wageningen’s work on developing new forms of governance is helping to further sustainability. ‘Then we have science for understanding and impact.’

The slogan ‘Science for impact’ was heard several times. Those who want to know more about the influence of the ninety-year-old institution can consult the colourful jubilee book ‘Science for impact’ that Kropff presented during the celebrations.

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