Academy report on a new role for biology

9 November 2011

According to a recent report by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Netherlands has a robust position in the biosciences thanks to a combination of internationally prestigious researchers, effective educational programmes, and innovative, outward-looking enterprises. In its strategic foresight study on the New Biology [Nieuwe Biologie], the Academy identifies five areas in which Dutch research has focus, mass, and international impact.

Nevertheless, the Academy also points out that urgent steps must be taken to improve research, education and knowledge valorisation.
No area of science has changed as much as biology in the past thirty years. Our knowledge of living matter – from the molecular building blocks of life to the biosphere – has increased enormously. Biologists today collaborate closely with researchers in such allied disciplines as the medical and technical sciences, physics, and chemistry (which is why scientists now refer to the "New Biology"). The biosciences play a necessary role in many different areas: in human health, in food certainty, in our ecosystems , in biodiversity, and in the bio-based economy. The New Biology forms an important basis for the Dutch knowledge economy in six of the Netherlands’ nine key economic sectors, i.e. agro-food, horticulture and propagation materials, life sciences, chemicals, energy, and water. The study estimates the economic impact of the discipline to be at least EUR 30 billion annually.

However, the Academy warns that the progress the Dutch have made in biology is under threat and could very well grind to a halt. In the past decade, for example, government and enterprise have invested less in education and research in the Netherlands than in most other countries in the West. The effects of this downward trend are now being felt. The same period saw a doubling of the number of students enrolled in New Biology programmes, but the number of tenured teaching staff has remained static at best. The educational programmes are therefore at risk of being eroded.

The Strategic Foresight on New Biology – The Core of the Life Sciences [Nieuwe biologie – het kloppend hart van de life sciences] was written by a broad committee of experts representing science and enterprise, chaired by Academy member Rudy Rabbinge. The report makes recommendations concerning education, research and innovation, and knowledge valorisation.

The intention is for the relevant parties to take the recommendations on board and draw up a detailed plan for the sector based on the foresight.

The study is available in Dutch with a summary in English. It can be ordered or downloaded.