Working for science and scholarship

Louise Vet (NIOO-KNAW)

In our Working for science column, we ask two generations of an Academy institute the same questions. Questions about their passions, the Academy, and the role of science. We begin with the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO). We have interviewed Irene de Bruijn, post-doc (read her interview) and Louise Vet, director. The NIOO has a staff of more than 300 people involved in basic and strategic ecological research. 

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Prof. Louise Vet

Director of the NIOO and Professor of Evolutionary Ecology at Wageningen University. Louise was born in Haarlem on 9 January 1954.

What’s so wonderful about working for science?
‘It’s an ongoing quest. It lets me satisfy my inherent curiosity and contribute to society. Science is a passion. It lures you in and never lets you go.’

When did you first find your vocation? 
‘When I was in primary school I had to make a herbarium. I remember finding all the little plants so beautiful. But the real awareness came towards the end of secondary school. We had the same teacher for biology and chemistry, and he was constantly explaining how the two subjects were related. That interdisciplinary approach really appealed to me. It’s something I still do, every day.’

Did you make a conscious decision to work for an Academy institute? 
‘The NIOO sounded me out about the directorship, but I wasn’t interested at first. It was spread across three locations at the time, and it would have involved a lot of travel. And I didn’t want to give up my research. I was on sabbatical in Vancouver when I was ‘summoned’ to the Academy. On top of everything, I was expected on my son’s tenth birthday. He was very upset that I wasn’t with him. The Academy was persuasive. They said I could take my research group with me. And I got to work on concentrating the entire institute at a single location. It all went really well.’

What are the advantages of working for the NIOO as opposed to working at a university? 
‘As a director, I bear all-round management responsibility. That means that I can optimise the coordination between research and research support, for example financial affairs and personnel. Our support staff know who they’re working for and what they’re working for. We build personal relationships with each other and we’re flexible. That’s how we’ve created an ideal working environment at the NIOO, even though we have relatively few support staff.’

What would you like to see the Academy do, or do much more of? 
‘I believe the Academy should do a better job of explaining the benefits of basic research. And that we can’t do without it. Of course it’s not possible to find a practical purpose for every single research result. But we have to keep showing that basic research is the fire that heats the cauldron of applied research. And the challenge facing all Academy researchers is to ensure that basic research remains strong, even now within the context of growing and important public-private partnerships.’

Can you name another Academy institute where you’d like to take a look around?
‘The Academy Humanities Cluster. The humanities institutes have been in their cluster for a few months now and I’m curious to know whether new partnerships have already got off the ground. My own experience teaches me that staff can find mergers quite stressful. But they can also lead to wonderful things.’

The Academy is the voice of science in the Netherlands. What’s your battle cry? 
My battle cry is literally a primal scream: Nature functioned 3.8 billion years without people. We’re the newcomers. And our challenge is to create an economy that fits in with nature’s. One that makes use of and respects the laws of nature. Otherwise we really will not survive, with nine or ten billion people on the planet.

See also: Web page Louise Vet

Read the interview with Irene de Bruijn, post-doc at NIOO-KNAW