Credit: Foto: Flip Franssen

Are Unilever’s ties with Wageningen University too close?

By Tim Luimes, Remy Käller, Mirjam van der Puijl, Michiel van Herpen, Irene van den Berg, | 23 December, 2020

Wageningen University & Research (WUR) takes pride in its excellent relations with the food and agriculture industry. It is particularly close with Unilever. The public-private research projects this global food giant co-finances are supposed to be ‘independent’. The Investigative Lab discovered, however, that the company effectively pulls the strings in all phases of these projects.

The Investigative Lab put the spotlight on two research programmes in which Unilever and WUR are cooperating. The journalists unveiled that Unilever has a say in each research phase: of course when deciding about its own financial support, but also in the awarding of government subsidies, in intermediate evaluations and (sometimes) in delaying publications.

The Dutch governmental ‘Topsectorenbeleid’ (Top-Sector Policy) awards extra subsidies to scientific research in nutrition, agro technology, water technology, energy, chemistry and other sectors in which the Netherlands want to compete on the global market. When applying for these subsidies, university researchers have to find co-financing from private companies.

As a result, the corporate sector has acquired considerable influence on the scientific research done by Dutch universities. It participates in developing the long-term research agenda of the (in total nine) Top Sectors and holds seats in the review commissions which evaluate the research proposals. It may happen that a company like Unilever both finances a project and is represented in the ‘independent’ committee that decides on awarding a government subsidy for the same project.

Clearly, university departments specializing in applied research, which is of economic interest to the industry, benefit from this type of public-private co-funding. For scientists engaged in more fundamental research it is much harder to survive. ‘When a system is designed not to support research that is not in the industry’s interest, some questions will stop being asked’, fears Bram Büscher, professor of Sociology at WUR.

WUR maintains that the research done in partnerships with industry is scientifically independent. ‘Companies have no influence on how the research is done and how the results are interpreted.’

Read the full story in VrijNederland (in Dutch).

Listen to the Investigative Lab podcast (in Dutch) here.

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