Departing Academy President argues for part-time administrators

18 May 2015

In his final annual address, the President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, Hans Clevers, came out in favour of public service on the pattern common in the English-speaking world, with researchers combining their research work with administrative duties for a few years. In the Netherlands, professional administrators dominate.

During the meeting at the Academy’s Trippenhuis Building in Amsterdam, José van Dijck was installed as Clevers’ successor. The guest speaker was Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society.

Researchers as administrators

Clevers focused on how scientific and other organisations are administered. ‘For a long time now, our administrators have ceased to be active practitioners of the profession that they administer; they may not in fact have done any actual research in their own workplace. During my discussions in The Hague about how the 275 million euros in funding from the NWO [Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research] should be shared out within the top economic sectors, I didn’t meet anybody who had themselves applied for or assessed an NWO grant in the past ten years.’

After discussing practices in the English-speaking world, Prof. Clevers raised the question of how the Netherlands can get more scientists into administrative bodies. In his view, ‘You have to make it clear to top researchers that they need to engage in public service. That means spending three or four years as an administrator, long enough to understand the challenges of administration and long enough to have an impact. But short enough not to cease being an active researcher.’

According to Clevers, the small amount of research that has been done on the significance of top researchers on university boards emphasises the importance of such public service.

What’s happened to the investment?

Clevers referred briefly to the 2025 Vision for Science document [Wetenschapsvisie 2025] published in November by the Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science Jet Bussemaker and State Secretary Sander Dekker: ‘Most aspects of their vision for science are embraced by scientists. But I must point out how much the Academy regrets that that policy document does not even express an intention to invest in science, if necessary in the longer term.’

‘Advising society on science’

This year’s guest speaker was Sir Paul Nurse, who received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2001 and is now the President of the Royal Society, the British counterpart of the Academy. In his address, Sir Paul explored the fickle three-way relationship between science, public policy, and society in general. Based on three topics – the climate debate, genetic modification, and the risk of earthquakes – he defined a number of conditions for successful interventions by scientists. Among other things, Sir Paul stressed the importance of unbiased scientific consensus – consensus that must be the result of rigorous review procedures and that must be subjected to public debate from the outset. The scientific organisations that advise government need to be broadly based, impartial and completely open, and must understand the methods and values of science.

Diversity, curiosity, and service to society

In her inaugural address, the Academy’s new President, José van Dijck, outlined three themes that will guide her in the years ahead: diversity, curiosity, and service to society. ‘Diversity,’ she said, ‘refers to the heterogeneity of all disciplines – traditional and new, theoretical and applied, qualitative and quantitative – but also to diversity among scientists themselves.’ Speaking of ‘curiosity’, she praised the renewed appreciation for asking questions, as recently evidenced by the National Research Agenda. Curiosity is also what links science with the arts, and it therefore links the Academy and The Young Academy with the Society of Arts. She explained the third theme, service to society, as follows: ‘Scientists engage in science, of course, but they also always serve society, whether that involves finding solutions for the issues that society faces or contributing to technological innovation.’