Speech Aalt Dijkhuizen 2010-2011

Speech Aalt Dijkhuizen opening ceremony 2010-2011.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Distinguished Guests,                            

On behalf of the Executive Board, I would like to welcome you all to celebrate the start of the academic year 2010-2011. With us a joint starting point for the entire organization, including Wageningen University, the Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences and the nine specialized and applied DLO research institutes.

The theme of the opening this year, the International Year of Biodiversity, is ‘Nature as the basis’. In our civilized society we easily overlook and underestimate the importance of nature for our life and our economy. Nature to enjoy, nature to take care of and nature to explore. The competing claims on our natural basis will further increase with the expected growth in world population and rise of prosperity. A tremendous challenge ahead that asks for breakthroughs, making innovation more important than ever.

We are very pleased to have two speakers with us today, who will address this topic. Our keynote speaker Alexander Pechtold, D66 Party Leader in the Dutch Parliament, who will focus on the importance of education and innovation in general and in our domain in particular and Kees Slingerland, Managing Director of the Environmental Sciences Group of Wageningen UR, who will show the beauty and richness nature offers to people and present some of the research and teaching activities we are carrying out to help make this possible. He will also briefly reflect on the outcome of the symposium earlier today.

Ladies and gentlemen, seven months after the fall of the Dutch government it is still not clear what the new coalition will look like. Various options have come past, each with a different impact on our field of activities and on our financial position. We have actively explained our interests to the key-people in and around the formation process. Four issues have especially been emphasized: (1) the importance of the food & agrisector for the Dutch economy, which produces 10% of the national product, 10% of the employment, more than 20% of the export and over 50% of the trade surplus, with further growth possible; (2) the importance of a policy that connects food production and nature management, especially now that our society is in transition towards increased sustainability (‘Nature as the basis’); and (3) the importance of short lines between government, business and knowledge institutes (the ‘golden triangle’), commonly considered thé factor behind the success of the Dutch food & agrisector and a unique selling point worldwide. We think these issues, together with (4) the need for a high-level representation in Brussels, justify a dedicated ministry and a key position in the new Cabinet.

Whatever coalition, the years to come will show extensive budget cuts and hence it will  be more difficult to get public funding for research and teaching. Especially the applied research is under pressure. Reason the more to be prepared and make sure that our own house is and remains in order. I am pleased to say that Wageningen UR is in a financially-sound shape thanks to a significant growth in number of students, more contract research and continuous cost reductions. We are currently in the middle of a formal strategy process for the years to come. A strategy that should ensure that the organization remains healthy and we as the management therefore propose the following:

1. Continuation of the main themes for research and teaching

In 2010, at the start of the previous strategic plan, we (re)defined our domain as ‘healthy food and living environment’, with special emphasis on areas such as sustainable food production, food quality and safety, animal health and welfare, human nutrition and health, water management, climate change, biodiversity and biobased products. Significant progress has been made in these areas, but over the years their importance has further increased and hence we will continue to focus on these in the coming years.

2. Further efforts on operational excellence

We will also continue to decrease our costs, and see especially opportunities in a better use of available housing and laboratory facilities and in a better share of the most expensive equipment. Our decision to move the headquarters into one of the already existing buildings at the Wageningen Campus is a good and recent example of this, and will save us between 0.6 and 0.8 m euros running costs per year. Furthermore, we want to start more shared service centres, as we have them today running successfully for ICT, Procurement and Communication Services. The management of Van Hall Larenstein is ready to simplify internal procedures and save considerably on supporting staff and overhead. And lastly, we expect our graduate schools to increase in efficiency and trust that our staff and student councils take their responsibility to decrease in size and costs. All these efforts are meant to make more of the incoming money available for research and teaching.

3. Improved position of the DLO institutes in the commercial research market

Our DLO research institutes are well positioned to bridge the gap between academic research on the one hand and innovation in the field on the other. Being successful in this position asks for a demand-driven attitude, professional account management and a clear value-added performance. We are currently in the process of improving on these issues. When we do this rightly, we should be able to more than compensate for the expected budget cuts in public funding. Successful applications are important to speed up the innovation process and have a stimulating effect on academic research and teaching. ‘Science for impact’, as we call it and aim for.

4. More emphasis on and support of top-quality university groups

‘Top-quality’ has always got specific attention in our approach. At the university we have tenure track in place to select and support the best young people and we award the best groups with some additional funding. We intend to discriminate more than we do today between the real top and lower-end level. Providing better funding arrangements for the top-5 or top-10 chair groups and at the same time being much stricter to the lowest-quality groups. Ensuring top-quality is the only way to survive in the increased international competition. It is also important to keep attracting new students. We are very pleased with the figures for this new academic year, with 8% more new students at Van Hall Larenstein and 16% more at Wageningen University than last year, leading at the university to a record-high enrolment of around 1900 students. About 60% more than five years ago. This spectacular increase puts an additional demand on our teachers, teaching facilities and student housing. Demands that we try to manage as well as possible. We are therefore more than pleased, that students, despite this rapid increase, valued Wageningen University for the fifth year in a row as the best university of The Netherlands. A big compliment for everyone involved.

5. Internationalization and regionalization

We continue to strengthen our international position and consider Europe our home market. Attracting the best students worldwide, developing distance learning, establishing joint degrees and looking for options to start official Wageningen UR branches abroad are the major ingredients of our internationalization policy. At the same time we find it important to have strong links in the Dutch regions, as is already the case for our applied research institutes and Van Hall Larenstein. In addition to that, we are pleased to announce that the four universities in the north and east part of the Netherlands (Groningen, Nijmegen, Twente and Wageningen) have agreed to strengthen their collaboration in the areas of sustainable energy, nanotechnology, technology & health and food & health to better serve students and society.

Ladies and gentlemen, Wageningen UR is not only in a good shape, but also full of ambition for the future. This is only possible with great efforts and involvement of our staff and students. Therefore, I would like to thank them all for the tremendous amount of work that has been done again during the past year. It has become a tradition to mention some of them at this occasion, of whom we are extra proud. That are this time in the first place Prof. Martien Groenen (personal chair in Animal Breeding & Genetics) and Prof. Willem de Vos (Microbiology), who received the most prestigious European Research Grant of 2.5 m euros. Prof. De Vos was also awarded the title of most entrepreneurial scientist of the Netherlands in 2010. Next to them, Prof. Ton Bisseling (Molecular Biology) and Prof. Ivonne Rietjens (Toxicology), who were appointed by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences to the prestigious position of Academy Professor. And then Prof. Tuur Mol (Environmental Policy) who was awarded the Distinguished Scholarship of the International Sociological Association and the Frederick Buttel Award of the American Sociological Association, granted every year since 1983 and now for the first time to a non-US scientist. We are also extra proud of the entire staff of IMARES, our DLO research institute for marine resource management, who in a short period of time, established a very strong position in the outside world and a rapid growth in the research portfolio and the financial results. A real example of a market-oriented approach. And last but not least Ellen Marks, Managing Director of Van Hall Larenstein, who with an ever-lasting energy finalized the formal merger between Van Hall and Larenstein and developed a sound strategy for further improvement and future growth.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are at the start of a challenging new decade. A decade during which new solutions are needed for the important worldwide issues: food, water and energy. Issues that are at the core of Wageningen UR knowledge and activities. We are very eager to continue our work on these issues and count on the collaboration with all of you. With ‘Nature as the basis’.

With all that in mind I declare the academic year 2010-2011 open.

Dr. Aalt A. Dijkhuizen, President and Chairman Executive Board Wageningen UR