Building Forum

University research funding

The private sector does not fund very much university research in Wageningen. This is according to internal research conducted by Wageningen University & Research, which looked into the funding sources for Wageningen PhD research from 2020 and 2021. Only 15 out of 577 of the PhDs were funded by the private sector.

Analysis of the current situation

Action groups and journalists regularly argue that the private sector has a great deal of influence at Wageningen University and that academic and business interests at Wageningen campus are becoming increasingly intertwined. The figures indicate quite the opposite; the private sector is funding less and less PhD research in Wageningen.

Wageningen University has published 577 PhD theses over the past two years, and PhD students are required to state who funds their research. PhD research makes up the lion’s share of the university’s academic output. The main funders of that research are not private companies, but public funders such as the Dutch Research Council (NWO), the EU and Nuffic.

First funding source

Figure 1: Sources of funding (click to enlarge
Figure 1: Sources of funding (click to enlarge

When funding research, Dutch universities distinguish between first, second and third funding sources. The first funding source is the research funding from the university itself, usually the chair group. Only 68 of the 577 PhD theses (11.8%) were paid for by the Wageningen chair groups themselves.

Second revenue flow

The second funding source pertains to grants from research funders, such as the Dutch Research Council (NWO) and KNAW. This is government funding, which covered 132 (22.9%) PhD projects. The Dutch Research Council in particular provides a lot of research funding. However, the lion’s share of university research money (the remaining 65.3%) comes from the third funding source, a collection of various external funders.

Third funding source

Figure 2: Distribution of third funding source
Figure 2: Distribution of third funding source

The third funding source involves money coming in through research projects and grants. The main research funding sources are public funders, such as the European Union, Nuffic (which primarily funds research in developing countries), foreign partner universities and foreign government agencies and fellowship programmes. 37.6% of all PhD research was paid for this way. An additional 12.1% of research is paid for by non-profit organisations. This includes foundation scholarship programmes. A small portion are also paid for by a combination of public funding sources and ‘students paying for themselves’; PhD students who do just that.

Public-private research

Figure 3: Public-private funding sources (click to enlarge)
Figure 3: Public-private funding sources (click to enlarge)

Then there are two funding sources that involve private sources. First, there is public-private research, where a public funding source (often the government) and a company or business pay the costs together. This is particularly done in organisations such as the Top Institute Food and Nutrition (TIFN), the water knowledge institute Wetsus and the Top Consortium for Knowledge and Innovation (TKI), part of the top-performing sectors Agri & Food and Horticulture & Propogation materials. Joint research plans involving the government, the private sector and universities or research institutes are formulated and funded in these organisations. 34 PhDs were paid for this way.

Several companies coordinate public-private research this way, including breeding companies such as Nunhems and Beo Zaden, Heineken, Shell, Danone, Avebe, Nutreco and AkzoNobel.

Private research

Finally, 18 PhDs were funded privately. Funders of that research include various companies, including the water company Vitens, chocolate company Ferrero, Coppens Animal Nutrition, engineering company BlueTech Research, machine builder Vencomatic, Trouw Nutrition (animal nutrition), Firmetech (fragrance and flavouring company) and Bayer Crop Science. Unilever funded three PhD programmes.

Almost all PhD theses are publicly accessible, but some have temporary embargoes; the research can only be viewed after a certain date. Of the 2021 theses, ten are embargoed. Why? Usually, at the time of the PhD ceremony, the PhD thesis had not been published in the intended scientific journal yet. In order not to deprive academic publishers of the ‘scoop’, these theses are inaccessible online for a period of six months to a year.


The study makes two observations. First, public research funders like the NWO and the EU often require companies to participate in the research programme (see list of companies, right-hand column) to ensure that the knowledge gained is applied in practice. The participating companies then pay part of the research costs. This is usually a small part of the research costs, between 10% and 25%. Sometimes that contribution is in cash, sometimes in kind (the company provides knowledge). This contribution is not always visible when accounting for PhD research funding.

Second, PhD research forms the bulk of university research in Wageningen, but not all of it. University lecturers and post-doctorates also carry out externally funded research. There is no oversight for this, but funding for lecturers and postdocs does not differ greatly from that of PhD students, says Wouter Hendriks, the Wageningen Dean of Research.

Decrease in private sector funding

Eight years ago, Resource, the magazine for WUR students and staff also investigated the funding of Wageningen PhD research by the private sector. Then, in 2014, the number of promotions (287) was about the same as now. Even then, the lion’s share of PhDs were paid for through the third funding source: 69%.

In 2014, the university funded 43 PhDs (15%) itself, and the NWO funded 46 PhDs (16%) through the second funding stream. The first conclusion: the proportion of first funding stream university PhDs has decreased in recent years, and the proportion of NWO PhDs has increased in recent years.

It is also apparent that the proportion of business in PhD research has declined sharply. In 2014, companies paid for PhD research in 15 cases (5.2%), and 18 times (3.1%) in 2020 and 2021. Furthermore, the percentage of public-private PhDs decreased.

Seven years ago, Resource wrote that the high percentage of external funding in Wageningen PhD research “fuel for campaign groups and journalists who believe that companies are paying for a third of the research budget and that there is a large-scale crossover between academic and business interests. However, these close ties are not evident at the coalface of the Wageningen research mine. In other words, in PhD research, because this is where the university’s external funding is concentrated.”

In recent years, activist groups and journalists have made repeated allegations that the influence of business at Wageningen University has been growing with the arrival of knowledge-intensive companies to the campus, such as FrieslandCampina and Unilever. The appointment of Louise O. Fresco as President of the Executive Board from WUR to commissioner at the biotech company Syngenta results in more private sector influence on WUR’s direction, these groups suggested.

In fact, corporate funding of university research in Wageningen has declined in recent years. Nor is the alleged influence of Syngenta reflected in the list of Wageningen research funders. Syngenta is mentioned once in the past two years as co-funding PhD research, as one of seven breeding companies that co-funded a public-private project of the top performing sector Horticulture and Basic Materials.

Funding special professors

Incidentally, WUR’s external partners also fund special chairs at Wageningen University. There are currently 56 externally funded chairs in total, with professors by special appointment usually spending one day per week at WU. Who funds these professors by special appointment?

Figure 4: Funding special professors by special appointment (click to enlarge)
Figure 4: Funding special professors by special appointment (click to enlarge)

In appointing these professors, the university deliberates on their decisions. According to Wageningen University’s guidelines for the (re)appointment of professors, the Extraordinary Chair is proposed by the Chair where the professors by special appointment can be accommodated. Afterwards, the Academic Board provides the Rector Magnificus with advice about the application. They provide positive advice, the director of the involved science group will establish a committee to review whether the Chair in question contributes to the university's objectives. Every appointment is for a period of five years.

The survey findings are consistent with financial data from Wageningen University. In 2020, the university reached a turnover of 405 million euro. This income came from:

  • government: 297 million (73%)
  • tuition fees: 39 million
  • government contracted research: 23 million
  • private sector: 14 million (3.5%)
  • sales (e.g. rentals and courses): 31 million

This also shows the low level of privately funded university research.

Who finances Wageningen Research? We will read about this later in part 2.