LIFE AFTER WAGENINGEN
How did you like the degree programme? ‘Wageningen was a very nice, international community. I really liked the freedom in the degree programme; you got the chance to sample all sorts of things. I took courses in art history, for instance, and philosophy. I specialized in toxicology. That is a nice kind of puzzle. You take a toxic substance, add a chlorine group and the substance becomes either more toxic or less so. You can study the effects of substances that affect body functions. In those days we had the idealistic idea that we could rid the world of cancer.’ After graduating in 1990, Melanie Peters went to Imperial College in London, where she did her PhD on the carcinogenic effects of cinnamon. Then she did research on cancer of the kidney at the University of Texas in Austin. In 1995, she returned to the Netherlands to work as a toxicologist for Shell Research & Development. Three years later, she was appointed to the Ministry of Agriculture. Why did you change directions, from research to policy? ‘There was a growing insight among toxicologists that we would never be able to prove the safety of many substances with enough certainty. Yet we badly need some of those substances, so legislation has focused increasingly on risk management. For example, by ruling that people in the workplace can only handle certain substances when wearing gloves. This shift turned the entire discipline on its head. It also meant the government had to answer more questions from the public. I wanted to help with that.’ Is that the common thread running through your career? ‘I always start with the question: what do people need? They can only change their behaviour if the solutions proposed match their day-to-day behaviour and needs. That was drummed into us in Wageningen, and that insight is still important in my work.’
MELANIE PETERS (b. 1966, GELEEN) 1984 – 1990 Food Technology, Wageningen University 1990 – 1993 PhD in Biochemistry, Pharmacology and Toxicology, Imperial College London 1993 – 1995 Postdoc in Toxicology, University of Texas, Austin 1995 – 1998 Researcher and toxicologist, Shell, Amsterdam 1998 – 2000 Account manager for Veterinary medicines and hormones, Ministry of Agriculture 2000 – 2006 Campaigner on Public Health and Corporate Social Responsibility, Consumers’ Association 2006 – 2015 Director of Studium Generale and lecturer in Liberal Arts and Sciences, Utrecht University 2015 – present Director of the Rathenau Institute
Are universities still too far from the reality on the ground? ‘No, they’re not. But we must stop thinking researchers must all do exactly the same: conduct original research, write excellent articles, and sell themselves. Let different people do what they are good at. More value should be assigned to collaboration with people who do applied and policy support research. Dutch universities and research institutes do a lot of research to keep us safe – things like food safety research or collision trials with cars. This is not material for articles in Nature and Science, but it does meet the needs of society.
‘The knowledge infrastructure has taken a few knocks in recent years. There have been budget cuts at all the government science organizations such as TNO, KNMI and DLO, and the product boards have been abolished. The government must once again aim at multi-year, far-reaching collaboration between science institutes, universities, users and ministries. For innovation related to public objectives such as a sustainable living environment or a legal system which satisfactorily addresses the debt problem, cybercrime and fake news, you have to build a knowledge base and give it attention over the long term.’ W