Working for science and scholarship

Theo Mulder (NIAS-KNAW)

For the Working for Science section we have interviewed Theo Mulder, director, and Kahliya Ronde, communication officer (read her interview) of the NIAS-KNAW this time. Each year, NIAS invites about fifty scholars to devote themselves entirely to research. The focus on research and the interaction with top international researchers produces new ideas and high-quality output.

Prof. Theo Mulder

Interim director of NIAS-KNAW.

How did you get your job?
'For the past ten years, I was the overall director of all the Academy’s institutes. After ten years, that position came to an end and the Academy’s Board asked me to organise NIAS’s move to Amsterdam, to ‘revitalise the institute’, and to prepare it for the future. NIAS used to be based in Wassenaar, which was a pleasant but isolated location. It took a long time before there was certainty about the move. That’s problematical for an organisation. Everybody is waiting for what’s going to happen, which makes it hard to get excited about things that you can’t yet actually do. We can now discover and use the possibilities that Amsterdam offers. To a certain extent, NIAS now has to reinvent itself in a new environment.'

What’s nice about working at NIAS-KNAW? 
'That the NIAS method works. People from different disciplines who would otherwise never have met interact and inspire one another. Their research gains new perspectives. Their book or their other work starts to look different. That process is much stronger than I’d imagined and so it’s also much more interesting.'

What recent discovery do you consider important? 
'Let me keep it ‘close to home’. What’s surprised me – you might indeed call it a ‘discovery’ – is how having such an island of unconstrained thinking can lead to creativity and innovation. The essence of an Institute for Advanced Study is that you offer a place where the focus is solely on science and scholarship. When people tell us why they want to come to NIAS, they always say something on the lines of "I’ve got lots of ideas but I’m all tied up in teaching and management. Please give me some time so I can just think!”

What’s the biggest misunderstanding about your work? 
'That working at top level in freedom being undisturbed is a kind of luxury and that people trained in classical philosophy, for example, are of no use to society. It’s short-sighted to think that you can force progress in research and applications from the top down. In order to solve today’s questions, you need to use yesterday’s research. So as a researcher you must think mainly about the questions of the future and not just about what’s happening right now.'

Is there something that the Academy really needs to do, or do more?
'Defend basic research and free research. The Academy needs to continue to emphasise that, but of course without forgetting that research also has a role in serving society. Where research is concerned, focusing just on usefulness is harmful in the long term. In many cases, the value of a discovery only becomes apparent much later. There’s a story – I’d call it romanticised – that the British Prime Minister asked Michael Faraday "What use is that electricity that you have discovered?" Faraday supposedly answered that he had no idea but "there is every probability that you will soon be able to tax it." There are lots of examples of there being decades between a discovery and its application.'

Amongst other things, the Academy is the conscience of science and scholarship in the Netherlands. Tell us something you think is really vital.
'Without science, social progress and a strong economic base aren’t possible! Over the past two hundred years, the quality of life has increased enormously. That’s to a large extent due to technological and scientific progress. Despite all its negative side-effects, science has created a society that is significantly more pleasant than that of two hundred years ago. It’s good to remember that and also that progress requires investment.'

See also: Web page Theo Mulder

Read the interview with Kahliya Ronde, communication officer at NIAS.