An opportunity for Minister Dijkgraaf
That the coalition agreement underpinning the fourth cabinet under Prime Minister Rutte provides for healthy funding of academic education and research is a sign of hope. We are pleased that Robbert Dijkgraaf – renowned theoretical physicist, former president of the KNAW and former director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton – has been chosen to head up the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science.
In ‘Het Wetenschappelijk Jaaroverzicht’, a TV program reviewing the year's science, Robbert Dijkgraaf stated in December 2021 the importance of fundamental research. By way of example, he cited the groundbreaking work of Dr. Katalin Karikó, which has provided the basis for the revolutionary mRNA vaccines being used in the current pandemic. He emphasized that, as has been the case in her work, it usually takes decades before fundamental developments find an application in society and technology. And that everything stems from this solid foundation.
On Dijkgraaf's shoulders rests an arduous task: the careful and effective spending of the 'extra' funding, now partially available, for which he argued back in 2008, 2010 and 2017. Extra is placed within quotes because the universities' funding is insufficient. This additional funding is actually funding for work that we, as the university community, are already doing and have already done.
That the third Rutte cabinet made no additional investment in 2017, conversely it made cutbacks, was a huge disappointment. This prompted the launch of WOinActie, a campaign by academic staff, supported superbly by the unions.
After a series of activities, such as the petition containing the urgent appeal for more funding for university education, a well-attended demonstration in The Hague, a debate with Minister Van Engelshoven and reports filed alleging relentless overwork, professors Rens Bod, Remco Breuker and Ingrid Robeyns published the pamphlet 40 stellingen over de Wetenschap, containing forty assertions about science at Dutch universities and revealing that much is awry and how to fix it. Very many of these points also apply to the TUs.
More recently, students, WOinActie, unions, administrators and other groups united in a coalition under the banner Normaal-Academisch-Peil (NAP), in a wordplay on the Dutch groundwater depth NAP, again supported by Dijkgraaf. On April 7th, 2021 the NAP coalition organized an Alarm Day for science, on which students, professors and administrators dived into the pond outside the Dutch parliament buildings in The Hague, driving home the point that they are only just keeping their heads above water.
And they were successful! The new government coalition agreement is evidence that the need for significant investment in science and higher education has now dawned on the political elite. This gives rise, however, to the question of how this investment should be distributed. We would like to take this opportunity to argue that it be added to the primary funding received from the Ministry of Education, thus putting it directly in the hands of the universities. Via any other route this investment, intended for academics, is likely to give rise to competition between the recipients and to preconditions being set, involving yet more committee and assessment work, and ultimately yet more bodies seeking ‘a slice of the cake’. It is essential that these factors, which do so much to build pressure in the system, be reduced. Thus: no big new NWO programs, no new Groeifonds (Growth Fund), and no additional academic staff.
So what is the right channel of distribution? This funding should, we believe, be allocated to the universities earmarked for a specific purpose. In order to strengthen science in the Netherlands while simultaneously making a start on solving structural problems such as the hypercompetition and the excessive work pressure, we believe it is essential that:
- the extra funding is reserved for the primary process, and is used in such a way that excellence in education and research, and their interconnectedness, are given top priority,
- the extra funding is allocated directly to members of the academic staff, giving them the freedom to spend it in a way that suits their own specific research and education.
Thus, for example, members of the academic staff could use this funding - individually or jointly - to appoint Administrative and (Academic) Support Staff, postdocs and doctoral candidates, or to invest in (experimental and other) infrastructure.
If this vital extra funding is invested via primary funding, free research and greater calm will be restored to the system after decades of scarcity and insecurity; this is a prerequisite for excellence in education and research. By enabling a healthy mix of permanent and temporary staff, a boost of this nature strengthens research, lowers work pressure, improves the student:supervisor ratio, reduces competition, and most importantly of all: leads to more and better, free and explorative research: the engine of innovation.
We wish Minister Dijkgraaf every success in the new cabinet and look forward to seeing his plans!
Remco Tuinier, full professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry; Patrick Anderson, full professor at the Department of Mechanical Engineering; Twan Basten, full professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering; Niels Deen, full professor at the Department of Mechanical Engineering; Evangelia Demerouti, full professor at the Department of Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences; Catarina Esteves, associate professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry; Liesbeth Janssen, associate professor at the Department of Applied Physics; Astrid Kemperman, scientific director PDEng program Smart Buildings & Cities and associate professor at the Department of the Built Environment; Pascale Le Blanc, full professor at the Department of Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences; Sandra Loerakker, associate professor at the Department of Biomedical Engineering; Anja Palmans, full professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry; Mark Peletier, full professor at the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science; Guus Pemen, full professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering; Albert Schenning, full professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry; Paul van der Schoot, full professor at the Department of Applied Physics; Bettina Speckmann, full professor at the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science; Kees Storm, full professor at the Department of Applied Physics; Jaap den Toonder, full professor at the Department of Mechanical Engineering; Ilja Voets, full professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry; Stephan Wensveen, full professor at the Department of Industrial Design; Peter Zijlstra, associate professor at the Department of Applied Physics.