Remarkable moments in my professional career

“In this short reflective piece, Johan Bouma, Professor in Soil Science at Wageningen University, in The Netherlands discusses his remarkable moments from his career in soils.”

Quite arbitrarily, I have selected four moments that I clearly remember and that had, often in retrospect, a lasting impact on what I have tried to do in my professional career.

As students of soil science in Wageningen we follow a practical training period that took me to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, USA in 1964. I joined two hard working graduate students who did field work in Menominee county where the original forest had never been cut. They used advanced statistical observation methods that were new to me ( quite a shock at the time) and they established vegetational succession patterns of different trees on different soil types. Striking to see how forest dynamics were significantly different at different locations, demonstrating not only the importance of soils with its typical hydrological and nutritional regimes but also the highly dynamic character of the ecosystems involved. This in striking contrast to what I had learned in soil survey interpretation: suitable for this, unsuitable for that, based on expert knowledge. That is still quite valuable but only as a first step to be followed, I feel now, by dynamic modeling the soil-plant-water-climate system, only focusing efficiently on soils with potential, omitting the “unsuitable” ones, that can be well identified by expert knowledge.  .

After obtaining my PhD at Wageningen University, I moved again to Madison, first as a post doc and later promoted to a tenured professorship. I worked on septic tank disposal in soil and we developed innovative mound systems for disposal of liquid waste on difficult soils with a low permeability. State law prohibited construction of houses on such sites. To avoid uncontrolled development the State Health Division allowed construction of mound systems only when they obtained the qualification of being experimental, implying that we would monitor them. One day a State Senator stumbled into my office, inquiring about the possibility to obtain such an experimental permit for one of his “friends”. Did he get it? A political answer: I don’t remember. But this was the first time that I discovered that my work had real practical significance, a new and exciting experience, one never forgets. But rather than wait for stakeholders and policy makers to make contact, a pro-active approach is to be preferred. But you have to have an attractive story or product, otherwise you don’t proceed much farther than the doorway.

Back in Wageningen I worked at the Pedology Department of the University. Sometimes during a coffee break, one of the professors shared what he saw when biking to the Department in the morning: an excavation by a farmer exposing a large soil profile. Out we went right away, looking at the soil, arguing about its formation and its properties losing track of time. Sure, this was not efficient nor of a high scientific standard. But   currently I sometimes miss this genuine enthousiasm as students and faculty are very busy scrambling to meet many, often self-imposed, deadlines of various sorts. I have learned to take off time, put my feet on the table occasionally and let my thoughts fly freely not necessarity dealing with soils.

A big jump, then, to the early 2000’s when I was a  part-time member of the Scientific Council for Government Policy, a think-tank in the Prime Minister’s offfice. I learned about “wicked” problems in the policy arena without single, clearcut solutions that we often pursue in science. Think of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) of the United Nations, embraced by the General Assembly of the UN in September 2015. Each of these Goals does not have single “solutions”, but compromises have to be found between often fiercely contrasting viewpoints by scientists, stakeholders, NGO’s and politicians. The role of the scientist can then be to present alternative options, balancing economic, social and environmental considerations for each option, offering a choice rather then a judgement. And never say that something cannot be done! Just show the consequences. Stakeholders and policy makers have to choose, not the scientist. This insight has been important for me now that I enter the last few years of my soil science career, facing  “fact-free”, “post-truth” attitudes and “alternative facts” of the last decade.

Was that all that was remarkable? Certainly not ( imagine if that would be so!) but these four items seem to somehow qualify.

Author: Johan Bouma

Pictures of interest

The author in a soil pit dug at the farm where I was born. Heavy clay! A monolith of this clay soil is now in Johan’s house.

The author at ISRIC in Wageningen, at the opening of the new soil museum, with Rattan Lal ( now president IUSS), Brinkman, Beek and the then director ISRIC Bindraban.

The author illustrates the light dimension of it all:  “beyond the lower plastic limit”.