Science in the Netherlands

Vice-president Wim van Saarloos

I really enjoyed today’s Academy Afternoon. Our guest speaker, Frits van Oostrom, let us sample his new book, due out in October. A rough translation of the title is Noble cause: the incredible but true story of Sir Jan van Brederode.

In painstaking detail, Frits reconstructs the bizarre life course of Jan van Brederode, born in Santpoort Castle in 1372. I’m looking forward to the book, which it seems is not unlike a good historical detective novel…

Our president, José van Dijck, gave her annual address and presented the essay that we have spent the past few months writing together, based in part on passionate discussions within the Board. The provisional title in English is Science in the Netherlands – A small country with a great record to maintain. (At this moment only the Dutch version of this essay is available. The English version will be published on this website soon.) We discussed, repeatedly and in the greatest depth, the strengths of the Dutch science system as well as worrisome trends. The domain chairpersons and the chairpersons of the advisory boards also commented extensively on an earlier version.

In our essay, we do more than identify the factors that lay behind the historical success of the Dutch science system; we also attempt to name the strengths of our 'polder model'. Those strengths are not only geographical (the proximity of all universities and research institutes) and infrastructural (good connections). They are, above all, cultural, for example a unique balance between competition and cooperation that we have dubbed 'friendly competition', little hierarchy and a lot of bottom-up initiative. We then extend our lines of reasoning to the future: how can we make use of the same strengths going forward? 

We hope that our analysis of a number of worrisome trends in the system will not only generate support for extra investment in science, but also for initiatives intended to reverse some trends. Every day, we talk to both young and experienced researchers who are feeling, first-hand, how high the pressure has risen in the Dutch research system. There is broad consensus that the viability of our science system is at risk. 

The passionate discussions in the board, co-authorship of our essay and the quick scan that the essay contains of the science systems in Germany, France, the UK and Denmark have all helped us to see things more clearly than before. For me, two of the biggest eye openers were the Netherlands’ status as a 'scientific high plateau' (page 34 in essay), and the fact that the Education Ministry’s recent figures show a surreptitious transfer of university funds from research to education to the tune of some 500 million euros a year owing to a growing student enrolment (page 52 in essay).

Wim van Saarloos

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