Speech 2008 by Prof. Dr. Martin Kropff

This speech was given during the Dies Natalis ceremony in 2008.

Martin Kropff

Ladies and gentlemen,

Science is people’s business. Therefore, Education Research and  Innovation flourish where and when people meet, discuss and interact in an open setting.  

This Forum building, this campus and in fact our organisation are designed to be such an open space for interaction. It enables Wageningen University and Research Centre to strive for science for impact. Impact on science, society and business.Our mission is to explore the potential of Nature to improve the quality of life.  We aim to  interact with society, to stimulate interaction between the various disciplines.  We aim to inspire people to work together and to strive for the best science in order to fulfil our mission.  We base our approach on sound academic values and responsibilities as I discussed on our Dies Natalis last year. As Wageningen University, we focus on a next generation university embedded within the network of Wageningen UR with its institutes and its university for professional education VHL.  In my contribution I will briefly discuss the history of 90 years Wageningen Science for impact and indicate how we see our future.

But how did this beautiful small city near the river Rhine become an internationally recognised centre of knowledge in the domain of healthy food and living environment?

The first reason is a political one. In 1872  Wageningen municipality decided to include agricultural courses at its local high school. That was a visionary act from your predecessor, mister Mayor. In 1876 the national government founded the Rijks Landbouwschool.

Building on this foundation Wageningen University was founded in 1918.

In this period, for many Dutchmen food security was at stake. The Netherlands was in need of an institute for education and research to enhance the productivity of the Dutch agro food sector.

The second reason is a scientific one. In the early 20th century, the opportunities for food production and the productivity of the land were largely  determined by the soil type. And Fertilizers were not widely available. Wageningen is one of the few places in the Netherlands with three different representative soil types in its surroundings: peat soils in the valley, sandy soils in the higher areas  and clay soils close to the river Rhine.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century  modern science was emerging. Science developed as a rational, objective search for underlying mechanisms using observations as a sound basis for testing hypotheses. Experiments needed to be reproducible.  Science developed towards specialistic disciplinary research. However, early Wageningen PhD theses already show some characteristics of our modern Wageningen approach.

In the early years, Wageningen issued about 5 PhD theses a year, in comparison to about 250 a year today.

Education in these early years was classic: the teacher taught and students listened and did what they were told and taught. The professor was an unchallenged authority.

World War II left the European economy in shatters. European governments had to build secure food supplies in order to support rebuilding urban communities and European industry. In 1945 it led to the foundation of a ministry dedicated to food supply, agriculture and fisheries.  A ministry that took, and still takes, great pride in its responsibility for research, education and innovation in its domain. It set up an extensive network of research institutes and extension services.

Knowledge from agricultural research was immediately implemented in the production chain through the sophisticated education, research and extension triangle: An effective mechanism for linking academia to the real world. This knowledge created a strong development of the agri food sector, not only in The Netherlands but also in Europe. The first post-war minister, Wageningen honorary doctor, Sicco Mansholt’s dream was to make Europe self sufficient in food, and was fulfilled much faster than expected.  Today, it is hard to believe that until 50 years ago, Europe always had a food shortage. This problem was relatively recently solved.

The institutional position of universities changed drastically in this era. The rebuilding of the economy led to a political, cultural and social shift. The number of students increased strongly.

Wageningen built a new campus on the Dreijen. Educational systems became more diverse.  Students wanted to shape their curricula themselves, they engaged debates, critically demanded explanations and were active in university policy. In this way, Wageningens students enhanced our external orientation, our demand-orientation and our ambition to have impact with our science.

The success of the post war policy for increased food security in Europe is obvious: food shortage changed into over production of food. Environmental issues as a result of industrial and agricultural developments became apparent.  During the 1970’s and 1980’s political, societal and scientific attention shifted. New issues took priority positions on political and research agenda’s: protection of the environment and enhancing sustainability were items that arose  and were there to stay.

An important impulse was given to strengthen the scientific basis of Wageningen University in the nineteen sixties.  This was the start of our Life Sciences orientation.

Our domain broadened and Wageningen University gained an international leading position and became an international forerunner as a domain-inspired knowledge institute, solidly based on top science. The open interaction with society remained intact.  

The developments in society and the scientific progress had great consequences for the traditional institutions in our domain, and in 1996 an intense and drastic merge was suggested.  Aiming for quality, demand-orientation and efficiency, dozens of small research institutions, the university and parts of the professional education institutions joined forces. The process of merging and co-operation in 1997 resulted in the establishment of Wageningen University and Research Centre. Our world has changed over the past 90 years.  However, food security still is a global issue. Society has to deal with complex issues like today’s theme food or fuel or climate change, sustainable energy supply, water shortage, healthy and safe food, sustainable land use.  Many of these issues are addressed by the Millennium Development Goals and many are related to our domain: healthy food and living environment.

In addition, we live in a time of rapidly developing communication technology. Today’s students are smart, fast and social and they learn in a multi tasking way. Social communication is instant via SMS and Hyves. All knowledge is at hand. Communication technology has changed our dimensions of time and place. This already had implications for our education and it will continue to do so.

These social and technological developments require a new philosophy on education, research and extension. And they require the perspective of improved, preferably quick use of new knowledge. The old and proven innovation triangle concept of research, education and extension in our domain has become obsolete. Use of science no longer appears in a linear way  (fundamental research – applied research – extension & education – business), but in a far more interactive manner and through a network approach.

Wageningen University has therefore redefined its position and concept of research, education and innovation.  We call this interaction with society “co-innovation”. This requires breaking down institutional barriers, between professional and academic education and between applied, strategic and academic research.

Issues in our domain require interaction between social and natural sciences. Understanding and solving issues like climate change or healthy and safe food, is not only a matter of technological solutions but also of governance solutions.

This approach is also embedded in our education programmes since research and education go hand in hand. Our students are trained to study issues within a broad context of science and society. They learn to evaluate various solution strategies in interaction with stakeholders, colleagues from other professional and scientific domains and other cultures. It enables them to combine in-depth professional and scientific training with a broad vision and communication skills. We call this T shaped skills.

Our new approach becomes visible when we look at some of our research themes. We work in teams on scientific issues in the context of societal issues. We used to study fundamental organic chemistry issues.  The  industry benefited from this research. At present it centers around bio-nanotechnology: the fundamental approach to understand, For example, self assembly of nanostructures from organic molecules is directly linked with potential applications in for example food sciences. Another example is our work on wastewater treatment. Our scientists developed biological systems for wastewater treatment that produced energy as well: a threat was turned into an opportunity.  Present teams work on direct production of hydrogen from wastewater.

We no longer just talk about human nutrition in an isolated way.  The field is broadened to nutri-genomics and its potential for personalised nutrition.  Combining new genetic developments with potential applications.  The same applies for plant and animal breeding, that has been made much more efficient and focused through genomics techniques.

 Another example is our research in development co-operation.  Integrated studies were developed: combining socio-economic and production ecological research.

A final example is what we call Bio-based economy in which organic compounds formed by plant photosynthesis are used in diverse chains of food, feed or raw material production. All rest materials are (re)used for materials, fine chemistry or in the lowest added value component fuel. The societal debate “food or fuel’ focuses on the use of crop products for fuel. This leads to complex issues for natural and social sciences. We have invited Arthur Mol – our chair holder for environmental policy - to elaborate on this issue.We have many of these examples These are presented in a special lustrum book: ‘’90 years Wageningen  science for impact’’.

The focus is not only on individual excellence but also on the teams that are inspired by issues in our domain. Our scientists have studied systems and found solutions in the past, present, and will continue to do so in the future.

As we could only describe a limited number of examples in this book, we will add more examples in the  series on the Internet. You will all receive a copy.

As we focus on next generations, I would like to present the first copy to one of our students who demonstrated that science for impact on society is also in the genes of our youngest generation:  Wouter Thibou. He is a student in International Development studies and he has been elected as the Dutch youth representative in the UN. He focuses on the theme water.

A next generation university

Ladies and gentlemen,

Wageningen University is a modern, next generation university, with clear connections with society and business through the Wageningen UR network. Wageningen UR is a leading Science and Innovation Centre in the domain of healthy food and living environment. The formation of Wageningen UR 10 years ago enhanced our international scientific position.  It improved our educational programs and  stimulated innovation in business and society. The mechanism we use is co-innovation in which the relevant stakeholders participate. That is possible because of the participation of strategic and applied research and professional education and spin out companies in our organisation.

In this next generation university scientific excellence is combined with social, cultural and political relevance and individual excellence is realised within the framework of a team approach within the chair groups of Wageningen University and the structures of Wageningen University and research Centre.

Thank you very much