Annemarie van Wezel New CSO at KWR: ‘Our position can never be taken for granted.’

For eight years Gertjan Medema held ultimate responsibility for KWR’s scientific publications. On 1 May he is laying down his tasks as Chief Science Officer in order to take up a new challenge: he will be part-time professor at Michigan State University. Annemarie van Wezel takes over his role as CSO thereby becoming the most senior scientist at KWR. She will retain an overall view, draw all the threads together, ensure coherence, and strongly commit herself to upholding the level of science at KWR. Through publications, through research, and by attracting the right people. She also sees the forthcoming peer review as a proven means to achieve this. ‘Because even if we’re doing well, we can always do better.’

Outgoing CSO Gertjan Medema explains the reason behind the change of the guard at KWR. Professor Joan Rose, the renowned international water expert, who is associated with Michigan State University and winner of the prestigious Stockholm Water Prize in 2016, asked him to become visiting professor at Michigan. An offer he couldn’t refuse. ‘It is a great honour, because in my field Joan Rose is an icon.’ His professorship begins on 1 July and will run for three years. He’ll be spending about two months a year in America and be at KWR for the rest of the time. Medema is looking forward to it: ‘It is a vibrant university with a large student body and a beautiful campus. I’ve been going there for a few years for a Summer School, so I’m pretty familiar with its appealing research group and setting.’

Knowledge transfer

As visiting professor, microbiologist Medema will be occupied mostly with research. ‘We have agreed on a number of lines of research. The first concerns the spread of antimicrobial resistance in the aquatic environment. The second is the global mapping of sources, pathogens and antimicrobial resistance in the environment. I will also bring with me the experience that we have built up at KWR in collaboration with drinking water companies and other players in the urban watercycle. I will be helping the university in Michigan advance in this area.’ This latter contribution will take very concrete form, he says: ‘To truly transfer knowledge, one has to do research together. I’ll be happy to apply there what I have experienced up-close here.’ Medema’s professorship is a great challenge for him personally, but it’s also very significant for KWR since internationalisation is one of the institute’s top policy priorities. ‘By taking this course I’ll also be contributing to this objective.’

Looking back on CSO term

How does Medema look back on his period as Chief Science Officer? ‘It was great to be part of KWR in that position. I started here as a researcher. As such, you focus essentially on your field of research. As CSO you see a lot more. Not all the depths, but certainly the breadth of the attractive research we do. It makes you both pleased and proud. I also enjoyed working with other researchers on an integrated research vision and on further interconnecting our lines of research. As KWR, we are highly specialised: we breath water. But if you want to play a leading role, you have to look beyond your own specialisations, research and consulting, and reflect on what the water future should look like. And what we, as an institute, can do to move towards it.’ The creation and realisation of this research vision, the ‘water-wise world’, was one of the high-points in his CSO term, says Medema. Another thing that gives him pleasure when looking back, is the increased number of publications over the last few years. ‘At the project level, clients don’t usually ask for this, but we want to be a quality scientific institute. You only achieve this by publishing.’

Everything for the end-users

Medema sees no problem, alongside his part-time professorship, in ‘just’ being a principal scientist again. ‘I have always loved the work’s substance. My international network is also founded primarily on substance; so it feels right. And adding something without letting something go did not feel right. The CSO function is in very good hands with Annemarie. She thinks naturally in terms of the big picture and beyond the boundaries of her own field. I have full confidence in her. It’s great that she’s taking over the baton.’

Biologist Annemarie van Wezel, who earned her doctorate in environmental chemistry and toxicology, works as senior scientific researcher and professor in the field of water quality and health at KWR and Utrecht University’s Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development. She has 25 years’ experience as a scientific researcher in risk assessment, toxicology, environmental chemistry and environmental policy assessment. She is, among others, member of the Dutch Board for the Authorisation of Plant Protection Products and Biocides, and the Dutch Health Council.

Van Wezel says she relishes the prospect of her new role. ‘I have watched Gertjan perform for eight years. He did it sometimes with admirable patience. In the CSO position, you’re responsible for science internally, for communication with our key clients, and you’re involved in the substance of the collective research we do for the Dutch and Flemish drinking water companies. You need to have the political sensitivity to get people on board. Gertjan always made it clear to the researchers that, ultimately, everything we do is for the end-users: the actors who apply our knowledge in practice. I hope to do this just as well as he has. Retain an overall view, draw all the threads together, and ensure coherence wherever drinking water partners meet and wherever they meet partners from other sectors. Because the true value you can add comes from solving questions in the areas of technology, health and sustainability in conjunction. And we can do that, because we have specialists in all three areas. That is KWR’s power. And I want to commit myself to making even more use of this power than we already do.’

Key points for attention

Although her plans are not yet fully fleshed out, Annemarie van Wezel has a few key points for attention on her list. One of them is upholding KWR’s high scientific level in view of the forthcoming retirement of several researchers – this is also related to the importance of publications. ‘Thus, for example, unlike the universities, KWR invests pretty quickly in fixed contracts,’ says Van Wezel. ‘I think this contributes to having people feel at home here. They have the time to develop their lines of research and, since they can be associated with us for a long period, we have become the memory of the sector.’

‘A second point,’ says the new CSO, ‘has to do with extending the research we do jointly with other stakeholders in the watercycle. I would also like to promote the coordination between what we do and what other Dutch and international water research institutes do. What kinds of collaborations work well, and what is the best way of disseminating our knowledge?’

Van Wezel looks forward to the interaction with end-users. ‘More and more forms of communications are appearing. I’m interested in shaping this and on working on it with our Communications team.’

Peer review

Van Wezel is also looking forward to the peer review, which will take place in the autumn and involve a two-day visit to KWR by a team of renowned scientists. ‘The peer review marks a nice start to my term as CSO, particularly since it also coincides with the arrival in July of our new CEO. We’ll be getting down to work with a fresh constellation. In the peer review we provide the visiting team with a report containing a good overview of our knowledge and its development, but also of its valorisation, that is, of its application. The peer-review scientists will have discussions with many different people within KWR, and thus acquire a clear picture of what we do. Hopefully, they will present us with some good recommendations, which will contribute to our strategy and support the choices we make for the benefit of our shareholders. Because even if we’re doing well, we can always do better. Our position can never be taken for granted.’

Medema, the departing CSO, is also looking forward to the peer review. ‘It’s always good to have a mirror held up to us, and let our peers take a look at our institute from a little distance. If you want to be a quality institute, a peer review is part of it. For KWR, it is important that scientists, on the basis of their own experience, take a critical look at our science and its valorisation. We consciously seek out reviewers who are also engaged in their own work in bridging science to practice.’

Bridging science to practice

Van Wezel also says she wants to develop more knowledge about valorisation, so as to get a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t. ‘Because our sector is open to innovation, but we work with drinking water, which means you don’t want to take any risks. This is why the valorisation side is so important. It is our raison d’etre. European projects are glad to have us participate because we have good scientists, but also because we have a deep understanding of the problems from the perspective of practice. ‘The translation from scientist to water producer is fundamental,’ adds Medema. ‘There is a good reason that “bridging science to practice” is our motto. If we do fine scientific research, but it doesn’t seep through to the water companies for their benefit, then we no longer have a raison d’etre. We are superbly suited to establish connections between knowledge institutes, technology companies and end-users.’

Bridging science to practice also drives our strong commitment to internationalisation in the years ahead. ‘We’re expressing this in different ways,’ says Van Wezel. ‘Within EU projects for example, with other knowledge products and users. Worldwide, we use Watershare as a platform to share KWR expertise with knowledge partners and make it available to numerous end-users.’