Friday the 6th of December 2019 marked the day Dutch king Willem Alexander conducted the official opening of Unilever’s “Global Foods Innovation Center”, the latest building established at the WUR campus. That same Friday also marked the day concerned students gathered at Impulse to discuss about WUR’s decision to closely collaborate with yet another multinational business cooperation. The discussion was organized by Stichting OtherWise and Stichting Boerengroep to allow for students to express concerns and learn from the different critical points of view regarding WUR’s aim to connect with business.
Louise van der Stok from OtherWise broke the ice by presenting several points of concern, focusing on the question whether the interests of businesses like Unilever and Friesland Campina threaten the independence of research conducted by WUR. It would not be the first time business-funded research is influenced and steered in a direction that fits the desired conclusions of the funding company. Furthermore, it appears that WUR only reserves space for large-scale, technology-driven types of businesses to establish themselves on campus, while within society recognition of more small-scale initiatives is on the rise.
To get a brief overview of the different thoughts among the audience we asked the following question: ‘What word comes to mind when you think about the new research center of Unilever on campus?’ Some of the answers to this can be seen in the wordcloud above.
The tone was set. Students seem to be concerned; some skeptical about Unilever’s research canter. A series of questions prepared by the organizing parties were polled and, as hoped, sparked the debate. These questions focused mainly on sustainability and on collaboration between science and private companies.
The outcomes were not one-sided. Many students indicated to feel positive. Unilever provides opportunities for much-needed innovative scientific research to ensure global food-security in future scenarios. Besides, it opens up doors for graduates as well as interns or thesis students. Then again, other students see more perspective in less globalized, technology-driven but more small-scale nature-inclusive production systems. “Why is there no place for some huge nature-inclusive agriculture innovation center?”, one student wondered.
The majority voted to believe that influence exerted at the campus, by for example WUR Chair groups and student-movements, may help multinationals like Unilever to become more sustainable. “Therefore, this controversial establishment may actually be a very positive happening!”, one student said. For this to happen, however, Unilever needs to be willing to sit around the table with student and WUR representatives.
Although excluded from the decision-making process, the level of attendance and strong input provided during the discussion showed a clear feeling of involvedness among students towards such kind of major steps taken by their university. At the closing moments, students called not only for further dialogue, but to also include representatives of Unilever and WUR Chair groups in order to make this discussion more constructive. According to one student, we should not forever stay in dialogue; concrete boundaries should be set resulting from dialogue. An applause followed.
Unilever is aware that this discussion and protests organized by Extinction Rebellion took place and indicated willingness to continue the dialogue. So, more will follow!
- Review by Timo Tönjes of Boerengroep
For more information on Unilever’s ‘Global Foods Innovation Center’, an article was published in Het Financieele Dagblad, a daily Dutch newspaper (so unfortunately in Dutch). Louise van der Stok was also interviewed for this article.