Stressful times

Vice president Wim van Saarloos

The Netherlands and the world are going through difficult and stressful times. It became very clear to me in the past few weeks just how closely fellow scientists abroad were following events in the Netherlands. 

I attended a conference in New York in early March and had to field many questions about our elections. On election day itself, José and I welcomed a delegation from the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science. They had come to discuss research cooperation between our two countries after Brexit. And for days after the election results became clear, I received emails and even congratulations from relieved colleagues and friends in Germany, the UK and Slovakia.

I will not hazard a guess here about the composition of the new Dutch Government and what it will mean for higher education and research. As a member of the Knowledge Coalition, we will continue to push for extra investment in research through the Dutch National Research Agenda. What’s difficult is that forming a coalition government can lead to unexpected decisions and events with a long-term impact. For example, when the first Rutte Government was formed (October 2010), funding from the Economic Structure Enhancing Fund (FES) disappeared and the Top Sector policy was born. And while they were at it, the coalition partners booked the entire amount in public funding destined for the universities (today about EUR 2.6 billion per annum) as investment in basic research. Because they conveniently ‘forgot’ that the universities also have a role in education, all sorts of reports seem to suggest, even today, that the Netherlands invests much more in basic research than it actually does… 

Our well-attended general assembly of 27 February and the lively discussions that we had there illustrate how deeply engaged our members are in the debate about the position and value neutrality of science in contemporary society. We also discussed at length how the Academy should respond if – in accordance with the motion submitted to the Dutch House of Representatives by MPs Karin Straus and Pieter Duisenberg – it were to receive a request to advise on ‘whether self-censorship and suppression of a diversity of opinion play a role in Dutch science and scholarship’. It remains unclear how the Minister of Education, Culture and Science, Jet Bussemaker, will respond to the motion, and whether she will in fact ask the Academy for an advisory report on this matter.

This past Monday 20 March, in the afternoon, was the first members’ discussion concerning trust in science (or the lack of it), inspired by the opinion piece that José and I published in the Dutch national newspaper NRC in early January. A lively debate ensued after the three extremely interesting opening talks. The fact that almost everyone attending – approximately fifty people in all – took an active part in the discussion shows that our members are deeply concerned about this subject. We concluded that it would be best to first schedule a follow-up meeting with our members and then organise public meetings to discuss specific aspects of the subject.

Wim van Saarloos