May’s inspiration: from Hans van Houwelingen’s tribute to Lorentz to the portfolio of research institutes

Vice president Wim van Saarloos

Last month we held two special events in honour of Hendrik Antoon Lorentz (1853-1928). In 1902, he shared the Nobel Prize for Physics with Pieter Zeeman – the first Dutch scientists to receive this honour.

Lorentz was not only the linchpin of theoretical physics for many years, but he also made enormous efforts on behalf of science and international cooperation, as the head of the Academy’s Science Division and as chairman of the Solvay Conferences. In the Netherlands, he chaired the Zuiderzee Committee, playing a crucial role in the design and construction of the Afsluitdijk, the major flood control dam in the north of Holland.

The first event was in early May, when His Majesty King Willem Alexander officiated at the opening of the Lorentz Lab. The lab, recently restored and located in the Teylers Museum, will serve mainly for outreach activities, for example demonstrations and hands-on experiments for schoolchildren. The second event was the re-inauguration of the Lorentz monument in Arnhem, erected in 1932. The City of Arnhem had the monument restored and, at the suggestion of Hans van Houwelingen, a member of our Society of Arts, the names of later Nobel Laureates in Physics were also inscribed on it. Hans gave a charming and humorous lecture at the event in which he cited examples of how drastically our attitude towards a monument can change over the course of time. He did a wonderful job of showing the connection between the arts, science and society. A video of the lecture can be viewed on the Society of Arts website. In my opinion, it's a lecture that bears repeating, for example in the Trippenhuis Building.

We have now started to prepare for the ‘portfolio evaluation’ of the Academy and NWO research institutes, in partnership with our institute directors. The Dutch Government announced the evaluation in its policy paper Vision for Science 2025. The Academy and NWO are establishing a broad joint committee that will evaluate the entire portfolio of institutes in autumn 2018. The members of the committee will be announced shortly. The committee will not evaluate each separate institute, but instead assess the entire portfolio of institutes. It will consider whether there are any unwanted blank spots or duplications in the portfolio, and whether it is dynamic enough in composition.

I have no doubt that the committee will also consider the position of research institutes in the Dutch research landscape. Are these institutes fulfilling their ambition to add value to that landscape? To what extent should their mission complement university research, for example by running a facility or working on a theme that transcends the capacity of any one university acting alone, or that requires a national centre of expertise? To prepare for questions like these, José van Dijck, Mieke Zaanen and I will soon be going on a retreat with the institute directors. It will mark the start of a period of intense preparation as a group. 

Wim van Saarloos