Speech David Baulcombe

Rector magnificus, ladies and gentlemen,

I thought at first that it would be a challenge to find a common thread with which to express the thoughts of myself and Dr Pauly about being conferred this honour by Wageningen University. Dr Pauly is conservation biologist and I am a plant molecular biologist so the connections were not obvious. Initially I thought that I would play with words – Daniel Pauly is interested in the sea – the silent world of Jacques Cousteau – that is now beginning to murmur in protest at the extend of human intervention. I work with a molecular mechanism called RNA silencing – we have a connection in silence.

In fact I do not have to resort to such a tenuous connection and in any case it is not really appropriate because silence is not a natural condition for either of us – Dr Pauly is no doubt having to hold himself down and wanting interject. We both like to speak our mind and we are both scientists whose commitment is to making science work for the common good. We both have an interest – either direct or indirect – in the environment and addressing problems due to human intervention. The planet earth is currently confronted with enormous problems caused by several factors including past failure to take into account the effects of human exploitation, population growth, climate change. A major additional factor – in my view one of the most significant at present is the restructuring of the world economy in the post Thatcher/Reagan era. The consequence of this restructuring is that a dominant driving factor in the economy is short term profit rather than the common long term good.

Our scientific approaches are complementary in attempting to deal with these problems. Dr Pauly aims to understand the dynamics of populations affected by human exploitation. My aspiration is to help develop technologies that allow human needs to be met with minimal costs to the environment. I would like to think that, in honouring us, Wageningen University is making a general statement that the state of our planet depends on combining our two approaches – understanding of wild populations and the natural environment and use of this understanding to decide how and when to introduce new technologies.

My personal experience emphasizes the importance of a combined approach in which technology is assessed for its impact on natural populations. I am talking now about GM crops which may have the potential to reduce the environmental impact of crop cultivation. However this potential has not been tested in Europe because the general public are mistrustful of the technology. I am convinced that this mistrust is due to a large part because early attempts to introduce the crops were not backed up by studies on wild species in the agricultural environment.

For both of us it is an enormous honour – I would say one of the highest honous – to be recognized by Wageningen University. You are a University with whom we have both had connections in the past and through which we have come to appreciate that this is a model institution. Through my experience on the advisory board of the experimental plant sciences advisory board I could see for example that student training is of the very highest caliber. In research I have had interactions with this university as collaborator, by stander with an interest in your work and even in some instances as a competitor. In all instances the experience has been rewarding and I think that both parties gained. In all instances also I would say that each time I increased my regard for the research and scholarship here.

On behalf of Dr Pauly I thank you for the award of an honorary doctorate to each of us. Your motto – for quality of life – sums up exactly what both of us hope to achieve in different ways.