Dijkgraaf, 61, is best known to the general public as the physicist who gave entertaining and accessible lectures in the talk show De Wereld Draait Door. For eighteen years he also wrote columns for the Dutch national newspaper NRC Handelsblad.
He obtained his doctorate cum laude under the supervision of Nobel Prize winner Gerard ’t Hooft in 1989, and later became a top scientist. He was awarded the Spinoza Prize, the highest scientific award in the Netherlands, and was president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. For the last ten years he has been the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where Albert Einstein once worked.
He made high-profile criticisms of the former government, which he accused of “budget-neutral small-mindedness” when it shifted research funding from social sciences and humanities to the exact sciences and technology. “Have you ever given a present to a child by grabbing it from another one? Have fun with that!”
In the new government Dijkgraaf doesn’t only have responsibility for higher education and research, but also for vocational education. His predecessor Ingrid van Engelshoven also had culture under her responsibility, but there will now be a secretary of state for that.
Robbert Dijkgraaf is “perhaps the most remarkable member of the upcoming team of ministers”, according to De Volkskrant newspaper. “The surprising thing is not so much that D66 approached him, but that Dijkgraaf accepted the offer.” The newspaper speaks of the “boldness and innovative drive” of D66.
Trouw newspaper calls him a “wonderboy” with a “sharp mind”, and an “appealing smarty-pants”, who gives “charming” lectures on TV. The newspaper points to Dijkgraaf’s past criticism that there is too little opportunity for fundamental research in the Netherlands.
Dijkgraaf has written a column in the NRC Handelsblad for eighteen years. This newspaper writes: “With Dijkgraaf we now have a Minister of Education, Culture and Science who not only knows what’s going on within universities, but also has a standpoint on it.” What is more, the new minister was “openly critical of his predecessor”.
De Telegraaf daily paper is more sparing in its praise, and places Dijkgraaf among the new government ministers “who are less familiar with Dutch national politics”. The newspaper characterises him as “yet another technocrat” of D66, alongside “hospital bed-planner” Ernst Kuijpers, who has become Minister of Health.
Broadcaster NOS calls him “one of the big newcomers”. According to NOS, in its search for a new impetus D66 has found an “outsider” in Dijkgraaf. A cautious footnote: according to NOS it’s “not unthinkable” that the new minister will be subject to criticism himself, for example on the introduction of a new basic student grant.
In the weekly magazine Elsevier, columnist Geerten Waling speaks of “the most celebrated member” of the new government. “The expectations are high, certainly because he is fully capable of allowing Dutch science to excel again, making it more accessible and freeing it from the ‘woke’ stranglehold.”
For nearly ten years Dijkgraaf was director of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. His appointment as minister has filled the institute with “great pride”, says the chair of the Board of Trustees.
“We are deeply thankful to Robbert for his extraordinary leadership during his ten-year tenure and wish him continued success in this new role”, he adds. “Our community will miss very much Robbert, Pia and their family.” Dijkgraaf is married to novelist and columnist Pia de Jong.
Campaigning group WOinActie tweets its delight about the appointment: “Fantastic news that
@RHDijkgraaf is the new Minister of Education, Culture and Science! At #WOinActie we have high hopes that there will finally be adequate solutions for the problems in university education.”
Others were less forthcoming, perhaps also because of the Christmas holidays. The reactions didn’t extend much further than a few retweets by Pieter Duisenberg, chairperson of Universities in the Netherlands, of Dijkgraaf’s own tweets about his quarantine on his arrival from the USA.
But universities, trade unions and pressure groups generally welcomed the coalition agreement that has resulted in Dijkgraaf’s appointment. “Squinting a little” they look forward to amounts more or less approaching the 1.1 billion euros in support they have been demanding, they say on a joint website: a systemic sum of 800 million, plus a one-off payment of 300 million. But they also warn for the devil in the detail, and give him various tips.
Students keep their powder dry for now. The Dutch Student Union has already announced protests against the low level of compensation for students under the current system of loans. The lockdown in higher education is also an unwelcome development. But that doesn’t have so much to do with Dijkgraaf as an individual. In fact, a president of the Dutch Student Union once called for Dijkgraaf as Education Minister.
Dijkgraaf’s appointment has also not gone unnoticed abroad. For example the Belgian daily De Morgen names him as evidence that renowned and distinguished figures will be entering the government, as promised by Prime Minister Mark Rutte. The Nieuwsblad newspaper calls Dijkgraaf “more or less the national face of the sciences”.
In an article about the “left-liberal force” of D66 in the new government the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung describes Dijkgraaf as one of the two experts “standing alongside the career politicians”.
Dijkgraaf’s appointment has also been a fertile subject for cartoonists. Cartoon duo Fokke and Sukke are in the new government, but aren’t much looking forward to their first meeting with Dijkgraaf. Bas van der Schot draws Dijkgraaf as descending from Planet Princeton into the black hole of Dutch politics. And in The World of Anton Dingeman he is referred to as the ‘immaculate politician’; even more spectacular than the Loch Ness Monster.