Achieving responsibility at Wageningen University & Research (WUR) – report launch on 9 July 2019

Moderator: Jack van der Vorst (general director Social Sciences Group)

Presenter: Phil Macnaghten (RRI Practice WUR WP leader)

Commenters: Wouter Hendriks (Dean of Research), Simone van der Burg (senior researcher Wageningen Economic Research)

After Phil Macnaghten presented the report “Achieving responsibility at Wageningen University & Research,” Wouter Hendriks provided comments. He noted that some issues are already being worked on, namely integrity and outreach. Some of the questions that he had:

  • What are our priorities for PhD training? Everyone wants more of their favourite topic in there.
  • How can we combine RRI with keeping a tight budget?
  • How do we keep / win back public trust?
  • How do we create awareness of the need of and willingness to integrate social sciences research into the front-end of natural sciences research?

Simone van der Burg commented that Wageningen Research already works on a number of issues that were flagged as recommendations in the report, particularly with regard to societal value creation. She argued that more interaction between WU and WR can help to address these issues. A number of obstacles she has personally experienced include different labour conditions; different funding sources; different kinds of personnel expenditures and a mutual lack of knowledge about what the other institute is doing.

General discussion / comments by audience members (about 30-40 people from different parts of the organisation)

Most audience members agreed that WUR could do better on social responsibility. However, one attendee remarked that WUR is already doing quite well on social responsibility. He compared the situation to that of the Chinese scientist He, who was educated at the prestigious Stanford University, but went on to use CRISPR to gene-edit human babies…

Persons working at both WU and WR can help with creating links. However, more interdisciplinary research is not automatically more responsible research… A proposal: ensure that PhD proposals are reviewed by at least one other department. Group work should also be facilitated – this is currently more common at WR than at WU. Another proposal: focus on responsibility in research strategies/lines rather than in single projects.

Changing reward systems is good, but not sufficient. We have to start to create awareness of the social context of research and innovation in BSc / MSc education. Both students and staff come to Wageningen to ‘make a difference’, so this will fit with their ambitions.

An attendee remarked that we have to have a mindset of helping, rather than profiting from, each other. Phil Macnaghten replied this is fine, but our research has shown that this mindset is currently being undermined by some reward structures that reward competitiveness, not cooperation.

One researcher noted that she can do RRI, but WUR should facilitate more. She organised a course for PhDs, ‘Making an impact’, but supervisors rather wanted them to work on their publications instead. Also, the investment theme ‘protein transitions’ is very technocratic and contains little on social impacts.

Gender studies have taught us that we need an enabling environment to address these kinds of issues. Time writing is part of this: in the current system, we cannot write time on valorisation activities.

Phil Macnaghten closed by looking at the future. He said that there will be significant funds available for RRI, Open Science, etc. in Horizon Europe. We are dealing with wicked issues that have no easy solutions. So we should not promote technology as if it was an easy solution, but encourage interdisciplinary collaboration and deep engagement.

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