Bees, milk, intensive livestock farming, ritual slaughter... one way or another, Wageningen research has come under fire recently. Get used to it, say those in the know both within and beyond Wageningen. It is the price Wageningen must pay for its Science for Impact.
text: Albert Sikkema and Roelof Kleis
'Research can come under fire in situations where knowledge is part of a political conflict', says Barend van de Meulen, head of department at the Rathenau Institute, which promotes the formation of public opinion on science and technology. It is logical, says Van der Meulen, that Wageningen UR finds itself facing these issues now. 'Wageningen has a long tradition of socially relevant research, particularly in the agricultural sector. I think this is to do with the social domain, in which you get many contrasting perspectives on livestock and climate change. And these are also sectors in which interest groups no longer accept what the business sector does. Take the current public battle on milk production, for example.'
True, says Cees van Woerkum, the Wageningen professor of Communication strategies. 'On the internet an anti-milk front has been in action for some time. I regularly point this out to the dairy industry: there is active opposition and you should look at it, because you don't know what sort of dynamics it could set in motion. These are expressions of social concerns that could be significant. Then they shrug and say: oh well, it will blow over. But that is totally the wrong response. Shrugging it off is just not on! People don't accept it if you behave as if they are just talking nonsense.'
'Whipped up', is nevertheless how Herman Eijsackers, Chair of the Wageningen UR Ethics Committee, describes the milk controversy. There was no real discussion of the contents of the scientific article or the press release in question, says Eijsackers. 'People only object to the acclamatory headline. And to blow that up and suggest that it brings science into disrepute is what I call stirring it up.' But Eijsackers also remarks that 'science in general has fallen off its pedestal'. 'Scientists used to belong to a distinguished elite and there was a blind faith in their research. Now you see another kind of exchange of information and everyone thinks they can find out everything on the internet, but there is no quality control there. The crassest example was the cervical cancer vaccination scare when one mother spread fear on the internet and undermined the Health Council's campaign.'
Public opinion formation
Wageningen is not alone in coming under fire, confirms Groningen professor of Media History, Huub Wijfjes. 'Last year the virologist Ab Osterhaus was affected by it too, when he advised stocking up on vaccines against the Mexican flu. He was then accused of having a link with the vaccine supplier.' According to Wijfjes, scientists are being attacked with increasing frequency for representing an interested party. 'By interest groups with an interest of their own. It is always about the interpretation of facts by parties with a one-sided interest, who accuse the researcher of having an interest too. We know this from research on media hypes.'
Wijfjes thinks that it does happen more often in Wageningen than elsewhere. 'Because you work on socially sensitive subjects in the field of agriculture and environment. In that area you get a tug-of-war about the interpretation of facts. Interest groups get involved in the debates and defend their interests in the public arena. That arena is becoming more and more important. Public opinion on sensitive issues is no longer shaped in parliament but in the media.'
Wijfjes believes that interest groups concentrate on creating images, with facts playing a secondary role. 'More and more people are joining in but that doesn't usually go beyond exchanging opinions, as opposed to establishing the facts. It seems to be harder to read a report than to send out a message calling it shameful. And then the more worthwhile, balanced news providers get buried under all this. It is cause for concern, in my view.'
The Groningen professor point to the 'whole industry' that has grown up around the influencing of public opinion. 'Knowledge institutions, provinces and municipal councils have big public relations departments. And all the interest groups nowadays have publicity officers and operate more and more professionally. The ratio has already reached one to five: for every journalist there are five opinion-makers. When push comes to shove, all those organizations opt to defend their own interests. Scientists should take this into account and adopt a communications strategy of their own.'
And it is precisely in this public arena that Wageningen is not nearly involved enough, says Van Woerkum. He feels that Wageningen has to a great extent stayed within its own little world. 'There is a social orientation, but it is not all that strong. There should be more interaction with parties in the outside world in order to be more attuned to what is going on there. We are not always in touch with how things are experienced by others. We should indeed explore the intentions behind public opposition, and we should be interested in it.'
Clarity and Transparency
To Aalt Dijkhuizen, chair of the Executive Board at Wageningen UR, it is clear that 'society is looking more critically at our research'. 'That is because our research matters.' He sees the solution in even more clarity and transparency. 'I think in this respect we should also make a clearer distinction between university research and applied research. The bee research was clearly solution-oriented research; we are trying to help the sector get a bit closer to finding solutions. Such research is not necessarily intended for publication in peer-reviewed journals, as is the case with university research. We should make this quite clear in our public communication. And we can also be clearer about who the client is and what our reasons are for doing a particular study.'
Dijkhuizen also thinks it should be made clearer what kind of research is involved. 'For example, in nutritional research you have epidemiological research, which identifies links between eating patterns and health. At this point you have not established any causal relations, but you form a hypothesis. You mustn't draw conclusions from this too quickly. Then there is also laboratory research for testing a hypothesis, and field work to identify the causal relations in real life.' According to Dijkhuizen, it is tempting to draw far-reaching conclusions on the basis of epidemiological research. 'Even if the researcher doesn't aim to do that, the journalist does. We should consistently state very clearly how hard our conclusions are, and then really stand by them. That clarity is essential.'
Researchers should also give more thought to how their message might be interpreted, says Eijsackers. 'The way researchers get mauled in the media is quite a recent phenomenon. It fits with a general hardening of communication styles in society. Perhaps we do need, after all, to work towards some kind of quality control on information, even on the internet.'
For professor of Communications Van Woerkum, transparency is not enough, though. What is lacking, in his view, is well-developed antennae for the outside world. 'Take the topic of lab animals, for instance. There we say: just look, we stick to all the rules. But that is not what it is about. The point is that people experience it quite differently. You should not just be transparent but also be prepared to talk about it. Wageningen still has a bit to learn about that. What Wageningen lacks is a meeting point. There used to be a place for that at the DLO greenhouses. It was a mess, but it drew a lot of visitors. We badly need a centre of that kind. Is there something in the news? Then we meet there for a good discussion with the people concerned. Organize a debate straightaway: that should be the reflex. And you should not shy away from controversies. You don't all have to agree with each other all the time. It is perfectly OK to show that researchers differ too. Nowadays people don't expect anything else.'
2011. 'An advertising agency for the dairy industry'
Last month a meta-study on the relation between drinking milk and preventing cardiovascular disease came under fire. Dutch animal rights organization Wakker Dier called the university an advertising bureau for the dairy industry. The bone of contention was a press release bearing the headline, 'Drink your milk: still good advice' and outlining evidence that milk could help prevent cardiovascular disease. The campaigners suggested that the milk industry steers research results in Wageningen.
2011: 'Bee study funded by Bayer'
'University of Wageningen not independent in its assessment of bee deaths', proclaimed the Vara TV programme Zembla in March 2011. PRI bee expert Tjeerd Blacquiere had pointed not at a pesticide but at the varroa mite as the main cause of bee deaths. That made him suspect, said Zembla. After all, Wageningen does business with Bayer, the producer of the pesticide. This led to questions in parliament as to whether Wageningen doesn't dance a bit too much to industry's tune. Secretary of State Bleker denied this. But his ministry did commission research at Wageningen UR on the relation between imidacloprid and bee deaths.
2011. Ritual slaughter: 'Mickey Mouse research'
In June 2011, the Dutch animal rights party Partij voor de Dieren tabled a motion to ban ritual slaughter without anaesthetic. After all, slaughter researcher Bert Lambooij had concluded that animals suffer during ritual slaughter. The Jewish and Islamic communities were soon up in arms against the proposal and set their sights on the 'Mickey Mouse research' done by Lambooij.
They challenged Wageningen UR in court, but the judge saw no reason to doubt the independence of the research.
2006. 'For elves, call Wageningen'
'For elves, call Wageningen' ran a headline in the Volkskrant in 2006. Wageningen UR was doing research on homeopathy, leylines and energy channels in the Bioveem project. ASG researcher Ina Pinxterhuis was supervising studies on 'energy balancing', a way of identifying sick cows using a pendulum and treating them with homeopathic medicines against udder infections. Thanks to Bioveem, Wageningen UR was twice nominated for the Master Kackadoris Prize, an anti-prize awarded by the Dutch anti-quackery foundation.
2003. Cockel expert changes his mind
Alterra research Bruno Els was given a hard time after presenting a study on the causes of bird deaths in the Wadden Sea area. Ecologists believe that shellfish fisheries have deprived the birds of their food source, but researcher Ens initially put the deaths down to a decline in phosphate levels. Ecologists and the media were all over him. In the end, the expert adjusted the conclusions in his report: shellfish fisheries remain the main culprit.
2001. Doubts about Foot & Mouth case
In March 2001, Aldo Dekker of ID Lelystad observed foot & mouth disease in a calf on Rien Theunissen's farm in Kootwijkerbroek. This conclusion is disputed to this very day. The Foot & Mouth Kootwijkerbroek foundation has started legal action against the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature & Food and Wageningen UR. A European court is even being asked whether ID Lelystad really had the required capacities.
Dekker had to appear before a parliamentary hearing just last spring.