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Investing in Research: organisational and financial

During the course of my career I have enjoyed the privilege of extensive travel. The period I spent in the United States at the beginning of my career in the mid-eighties was especially instructive. I was at the USDA in Davis, California, where I worked on aquatic weed control and, for the first time, was directly confronted with the relationship between relatively basic research and its application. Another very inspiring experience came in the late nineties, when I was rector at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education. I was particularly struck by the unbelievable determination and creativity I saw in my colleagues from South-East Asia, Africa and the Middle East, as they carried out their work under often very difficult conditions.

I have always been very proud of our European water sector and especially of our European knowledge infrastructure. But over the last few years I have begun to realise that our water sector isn’t innovating fast enough, given the global water challenge and the opportunities it presents us with. This is also evident when it comes to the integration of the water sector with other sectors, such as agriculture and energy. I also think that we, as researchers and water industry, the conglomerate of utilities, technology producers, multi-utilities, consultancies and SMEs, are not made use of enough in solving this crisis. This is not a matter of allocating blame. But let us try to draw on our own resources and do something about it. This should involve taking another good look at two issues.

In the first place, we need to look at how the knowledge chain is organised, and especially at the connections between the players. We have long known that the linear model of knowledge production, in which knowledge is conveyed to the market following a series of sequential steps, is an overly simplistic image of reality. Knowledge often follows a course within a network structure, in which it finds its way to the market along parallel paths of development. In light of this fact, can’t we organise ourselves more intelligently? I’m sure we can. In any event, we must intensify the collaboration between knowledge organisations, end-users and the business community. There are a variety of possible models. I myself have attempted to make a partial contribution in helping conceptualise and set up Watershare and Allied Waters. But there are other very different ways of achieving the same objective. Fostering innovative, young technology companies stands high on my agenda. But so too is making much greater use of our large, internationally-operating multi-utilities as carriers of a worldwide, European strategy. I will be keen to pursue such efforts in collaboration with my colleagues within WssTP in the years ahead.

Secondly, and the subject of intensive and longstanding discussion, we need to ask ourselves how things actually stand with regard to the financing of our knowledge and our water innovations. There are a lot of questions awaiting research, and a lot of knowledge awaiting application. Many of us believe that more needs to be invested in research. In several European countries spending levels fall short of the importance attributed to innovation and to an associated sustainable Europe. Moreover many fundamental and applied research results actually remain on the shelf, unused. It now seems that obstacles are not only holding back the funding of research, but also of societal innovations. I myself am currently, within the framework of an initiative we’ve dubbed ‘FINaqua’, actively helping the financial world establish connections with end-users and the research community in the field of water innovations. I’m doing this, among others, in close collaboration with a pension fund within the context of Allied Waters. Naturally, we’re open to learning from others in Europe as well.

My point is that we, as a research community and especially in WssTP, can take a stand on these two issues. We have to show that research and knowledge are key factors in confronting one of the big challenges of our time: the dramatic scarcity of good and reliable water. We need to assert ourselves as the WssTP research community alongside our industrial partners. This is particularly important with a view to building our industry’s position on the global market.

To me, all of this dovetails perfectly with WssTP’s general objective ‘to increase coordination and collaboration on water-related challenges, and to increase the competitiveness of the European water sector and allied sectors’.

On 14 June 2017 Wim van Vierssen was elected vice-president of WssTP. He is the successor of Theo van den Hoven, who served WssTP as vice-president, and was awarded first Honorary Member of WssTP.