The second Science in Transition symposium

Change is possible

The second Science in Transition symposium will show that large-scale change is possible in the science system. We will learn from pilot experiences in Germany and Sweden and in the afternoon debate necessary changes and possible solutions for the Netherlands.


In the early 2000s, the German government and academia wanted to change the system of higher education. Historically, the system did not differentiate between universities based on scientific quality. There was a shared feeling that German universities should be able to specialize, and that research excellence needed to be concentrated. Since 2005, the German government has invested more than 4 billion euros in additional funding in research as part of the Excellence Initiative. The money has gone to graduate schools, clusters of excellence and institutional strategies for the future.

In the Excellence Initiative, the label ‘excellence’ is not easily earned, nor can it be retained forever. Prof. Hans-Jochen Schiewer, Rector of Freiburg University, will explain how the system works. His university was awarded the excellence label in the first round, but did not retain it in the second phase.

The impact of the initiative on biomedical research will be explained by Prof. Robert Nitsch of Mainz University Medical Center. He headed the NeuroCure Cluster of Excellence in Berlin.

The philosophy behind the Excellence Initiative is that competing for funding and selecting for excellence will lead to the best science. But what type of science is that? And how does society benefit? Prof. Richard Münch of Bamberg University begs to differ. He will offer a critical analysis of the Excellence Initiative.

The final part of our survey of Germany will be a short debate on the impact of the Excellence Initiative and possible lessons for the Netherlands. Science in Transition initiator Prof. Frank Huisman of Utrecht University and Maastricht University will introduce the speakers and moderate the debate.


Next, we move on to Sweden. After decades in which both scientific output and student numbers have increased, Sweden is now beginning to realize that its focus on excellent research has led to the structural undervaluing of teaching and societal impact. Sylvia Schwaag Serger, Adjunct Professor of Science Policy Studies at Lund University and Executive Director International Strategy at VINNOVA, makes recommendations for improving talent management, funding and teaching quality. Rinze Benedictus of UMC Utrecht and Science in Transition will introduce the speaker and serve as moderator.

The Netherlands

After the lunch break, the symposium will continue in Dutch. Science in Transition co-founder Prof. Frank Miedema of UMC Utrecht will introduce the speakers.

A prerequisite for change is to have a concept of the future. Sociologist Willem Schinkel of Erasmus University Rotterdam will explore ideas about the ‘utopian university’.

Feeling a disconnect between the academic reward system and societal impact, malaria expert Bart Knols left academia and started his own company. He shows that we can make a difference in the fight against malaria.

A group of Utrecht students will present the Facebook page ‘Remodelling Science’, set up to collect ideas about change from young scientists. For example, medical students united in the Universities Allied for Essential Medicines initiative believe that medical innovations should be introduced as quickly as possible in developing countries, where they are often needed most.

Agenda for change in the Netherlands

In the second part of the afternoon, representatives of VSNU, the Academy, NWO and Science in Transition will debate the agenda for change in the Netherlands (names and moderator to be announced). If we want to adapt science to better address societal challenges, what changes are needed? The symposium will end with closing remarks by Prof. Wijnand Mijnhardt of the Descartes Centre at Utrecht University and Science in Transition.