Science - March 23, 2006

WUR needs to look beyond agriculture

Dr Ruerd Ruben leaves Wageningen University at the end of the month to become chair of development studies in Nijmegen. He is not leaving out of disillusion, but has a message for Wageningen. It needs to realise that the development issue is a many-sided problem.

The ministry of foreign affairs wants science and policy to be better matched with each other. Research should have an effect on policy. One of the ways it is trying to achieve this is through the IS-Academie, a cooperation programme between the ministry and Dutch universities. The Radboud University in Nijmegen has joined the initiative. And research that Wageningen does in developing countries should also fit policy better, according to Ruerd Ruben, who will become Professor of development economics in Nijmegen at the beginning of April, and also director of the Centre for International Development Issues Nijmegen (CIDN).

Hunger and poverty are complex problems involving agricultural development, nutrition and environmental issues. Wageningen is capable of addressing these aspects, but many more facets are involved, including education, health care, community development, politics and policymaking. These are less familiar terrain for Wageningen UR. Logical, says Ruben, but Wageningen’s focus on the agricultural sector can get in the way of the broader view.

Ruben acknowledges that a country’s development must be based on the agricultural sector. ‘But development cooperation is not only about agriculture. Three-quarters of the work is about education and health care. The World Bank used to spend a quarter of its budget on agriculture, but the figure is now only three percent.’

Distribution
It is the landless consumers who are the poorest in the world, not producers, says Ruben. ‘These are farmers that have migrated in huge numbers to the cities and cannot find work there. The problem of poverty is therefore increasingly one of distribution. China is currently investing a lot in rural development with the aim of achieving a more fair distribution of welfare, and to stem urban migration.’

Ruben believes that Wageningen UR researchers should work together more with other universities and institutes in this field. They can only come up with good policy advice for developing countries if they have a vision on areas beyond their own field. ‘There are no geographers in Wageningen working on infrastructure and migration. There are no political scientists.’ Wageningen should seek contact with the Radboud University or NGOs, and also with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington.

The development economist understands though that really good interdisciplinary researchers and programmer leaders are rare. ‘It’s asking a lot. You have to be prepared to put your own disciplinary career aside.’

Ruben has been involved in a number of interdisciplinary programmes in Wageningen, with plant scientists and food technologists. ‘It took a year to learn each other’s terminology. To economists, for example, intensification means more inputs per hectare. But biophysicists think in terms of increasing the area itself.’

Black professor
What southern countries need according to Ruben is applied researchers. ‘The way the university is organised at present revolves around PhD researchers. After graduating they start immediately on specialised research, and after getting a PhD often continue with postdoctoral research. That’s fine for specific problems. But if you want to place these problems in a wider context you need work experience. So first you should go and work somewhere else for ten years and gain practical experience.’

The number of people at Wageningen UR with a practical base in development cooperation is very small, thinks Ruben. And it is exactly that practical experience that is necessary for good teaching. ‘We need to make more long-term investments in people with field experience, either by doing this ourselves or by bringing in more people with the experience. Students must be able to identify with the staff. There is still no black professor with experience in Africa here, but it’s time there was.’

Ruben contributed to internationalisation at Wageningen UR in his position as project leader for VIVRE. ‘Internationalisation is not something you do on the side; it is the core of Wageningen UR. In addition, Wageningen UR has to become more of a network, instead of just a place.’ Developing countries are increasingly capable of doing their own education and research. And that is partly due to the foreign students that have been trained in Wageningen. ‘It is a logical development that Wageningen UR should be giving more and more support to education programmes abroad instead of bringing students here.’ Ruben regards Wageningen International as a good initiative, with its objective of bringing together the available expertise. ‘But there must be sufficient investment in applied and interdisciplinary researchers. Otherwise we will lose our ability to be the spider in the web.’

Sandwich model
Ruben also has praise for Wageningen. Like the Dutch government, the university devotes 0.8 percent of its budget to development-related research and education, a figure equalled only by the Vrije Universiteit in the Netherlands. Likewise he praises the sandwich structure for PhD students, who do field work in their own country during their doctorate study. This way they gain practical experience. Ruben also plans to introduce the sandwich model in Nijmegen.

Despite his comments about the narrow view of Wageningen, Ruben is not leaving out of disillusion. ‘I will have more space in Nijmegen, and I like the fact that it is a broader university, with faculties of law, medicine and geography. But the most important reason to take another job is that it is good to move on. If you stay at the same university you run the risk of becoming closed off, and we need to work together with others.’

Joris Tielens

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