Science - April 20, 2006

‘Wageningen should set up in China’

Wageningen UR should think seriously about setting up a branch in China, according to Professor Evert Jacobsen. On 24 March, the professor of plant breeding received the highest distinction that China gives to foreign scientists.

Jacobsen has collaborated with Chinese research institutes since the end of the nineties. He has supervised nine Chinese PhD students so far, and was also the brain behind the idea for a Chinese-Dutch laboratory for horticultural genomics technology. He received the ‘National award for international cooperation and technology’ from state councillor Chen Zhili, one of the country’s highest officials. In addition, there were four other government ministers present at the ceremony.

A number of Jacobsen’s PhD graduates have seen their careers rise rapidly in China. The average age of scientific staff in many institutes has decreased drastically in recent years, and it is not unusual for a freshly graduated doctor to become head of an institute. Jacobsen’s first PhD student, Qu Dongyu, is now vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and Sanwen Huang, who recently obtained his PhD in Wageningen, now leads the Chinese potato genome project. ‘Looking back, I’ve had more influence in China than I ever suspected. My graduates there regard me as a sort of father figure. I’ve learned that the Chinese really appreciate it if you try to build up a long-term relationship with them.

Jacobsen has done this consciously since the start of the nineties. After positive experiences with his first Chinese PhD student, he has put a lot of effort into relations with Chinese research institutes. ‘At a certain point I noticed that most of the Chinese PhD students did not return to China after graduating, but left for the US. That made me change course, because it wasn’t what I wanted to see. I wanted to build up a relationship.’

According to Jacobsen, Wageningen UR can strengthen its relations with Chinese institutes by keeping in touch with the alumni. Chinese graduates and doctors often get a high management position in research institutions at a young age. ‘They are thrown in immediately at the deep end. We should be offering these people support from Wageningen.’

Provincial universities
In addition, Jacobsen thinks that the Wageningen management would do well to adopt a different strategy. At present the focus is on top universities in China. ‘We should also seek cooperation with universities in the provinces and try to help establish good quality research groups there. I think we should concentrate on the provinces that are similar to the Netherlands, Henan and Shandong for example.’

Experts predict that China will soon overtake the West. It has highly educated scientists and ultramodern equipment. So does China really need Wageningen? ‘I think that people who say that China won’t need Western universities in a couple of years from now are being far too pessimistic about our abilities. They may well soon have the same technical potential as us, but they don’t have the historical background behind it. That is very important. We will have a lot to offer for a long time yet, and of course they will have an increasing amount to offer us.’

As far as Jacobsen is concerned, China is not the paradise for genetic tinkering that is sometimes suggested in the West. ‘I have been surprised at times, I must admit. China already had a genetically modified tobacco plant fifteen years ago. I visited that tobacco institute not so long ago, and learned that the Chinese have still not introduced GM tobacco. I don’t think this is because of Chinese public opinion, but the Chinese listen very carefully to worldwide discussions on the matter. China is a trading nation that bears its customers in mind.’ / KV