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NWO keen to encourage collaboration with companies and other countries

The second session in the new series of debates initiated by NWO was held yesterday at TU/e. The theme was unobstructed collaboration by universities in different countries, their partners being companies and other universities. In a discussion hosted by Lucella Carasso, NWO chairperson Marcel Levi was joined by Bart Smolders (Dean of Electrical Engineering), Yvonne van der Meer (professor at Maastricht University), and Marcel Geurts of NXP. “Since new insights are generated at the interface between diverse disciplines, collaboration is very important.”

photo Levi Baruch

Under the name ‘Science Works’, this NWO series of debates brings together researchers, politicians, policymakers, and grant advisors to discuss a topical theme in the field of science. It is a tour that visits multiple universities. NWO is using the fruit of the debates to flesh out the details of its strategy. The location chosen for this second debate is perfect for the theme, says Executive Board President Robert-Jan Smits, because “sixty-six years ago this university was founded at the behest of industry, specially the Philips company.”

Is any company ripe for collaboration? This is a very pertinent question these days. “No university is going to start collaborating with the tobacco industry, but we shouldn't exclude fossil fuel companies just yet,” says Professor of Sustainability of Chemicals and Materials Van der Meer. Dean Bart Smolders thinks that companies should be reinventing themselves. “And they could make good use of students as they do so.” He is proud of the - few - TU/e students who demonstrated in December against links with Shell. “I value their proactive stance. For our part, we must be able to explain why we are collaborating with Shell.” 

No demands set by NWO

The chair of NWO has every confidence in the ability of universities to find collaborative partners. “We have no political opinion and we set no demands.”
Another topic. “Would Electrical Engineering still exist were it not for industry?” is the question put to Bart Smolders. “Of course. We train talented young people. If our students couldn't work for ASML or NXP, they'd start their own companies.”
This afternoon industry is represented by Marcel Geurts. “Knowledge that NXP doesn't have in-house, it gets from universities. If it isn't to be found there, we ask whether it would make a suitable study for doctoral candidates.”

Knowledge security

Sharing its knowledge is something any university is keen to do, but for commercial reasons companies would rather keep their inventions to themselves. “Open science is at odds with knowledge security”, acknowledges Levi, “but these two aren't polar opposites. We need to find a good balance, for individuals as well as countries.” The Dean of Electrical Engineering agrees wholeheartedly. “The obstacles faced by master's students and doctoral candidates from Russia and Iran make for horrible situations. They aren't allowed to work with some (departments of) companies. This makes them feel like second-class citizens.” Smolders himself has firsthand experience of other restrictions. “In our research on 5G and 6G, we're working with Ericsson and Nokia. This means that we can't work with the Chinese firm Huawei as well.”

The question of how you avoid becoming a pawn in international politics gets a short answer from Levi: “Well, actually we're always something of a pawn.”


Levi is convinced that in ten years' time universities will be involved in a lot more collaboration than they are now. “It's still increasing. Ten years ago, the sector plans couldn't have worked.” The cabinet has allocated 60 million euros in the sector plans to fund collaboration between universities. NWO provides the secretariat. Audience member Professor Niels Deen poses the question why there are four domains. “They don't work well together.”

"There used to be a lot more domains ," explains Levi. “You must remember that reviewers are monodisciplinary. We need to do a better job of teaching them to assess multidisciplinary applications.” He stresses the importance of collaboration: “New insights are generated at the interface between diverse disciplines.”

Interuniversity competition

Does this mean there's no competition between universities? “Things may feel competitive, but there's enough to go round,” offers Levi as reassurance. “Enough money, enough students, and enough research questions.”

Another audience question for Levi comes from Professor Kees Storm. “And NWO then, who are they collaborating with?” With the European Global Research Council. “We consult closely with them. Sometimes I find myself thinking, not another European meeting already.”

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