Speech Alexander Pechtold 2010-2011

Speech Alexander Pechtold 2010-2011

In 1852 the American commodore Matthew Perry entered the Japanese bay of Edo on his brand new steamship.  

From the seventh century onwards,  Japan had lived in self-imposed isolation. Daimyo’s and samurai had dominated the country. No foreigners had been allowed. Perry’s modern vessel inspired both fear and respect. The Japanese had never before seen a ship propelled by steam engines.  Old-fashioned leaders wanted to “throw out those barbarians”. But a group of young samurai chose to come forward. Instead of running away in fear, they accepted this new reality. Japan opened up to the Americans.

Soon, they concluded that their only shortcoming, compared to the American visitors, was a lack of knowledge and education. Japan declared that from then on, instead of continuing its isolation, it would “seek knowledge widely throughout the World”

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, American steamships arrived in the ports of Amsterdam and Rotterdam.  This time, instead of carrying canons, they came loaded with cheap grain. The result - however - was the same. Years after Perry’s arrival in the Far East, the Americans set the Old World thinking. European economies had crashed: unemployment reigned; and food prices were high. Revolution was brewing in the north of the Netherlands, as so masterfully described by Frank Westerman - a graduate of your University – in his book “the Grain Republic”.  The American ships  presented a test to the liberal Dutch principles of free trade. American grain was ten times cheaper, But before the advent of the steamship high transport costs had protected European farmers. Now, new technology was levelling the playing field.

Many in Europe advocated “easy solutions”: shield national markets; impose high tariffs; protect our farmers. But the Dutch borders remained open for American grain. Dutch farmers had to fend for themselves by making the most of what they were good at: knowledge and innovation.

No matter how much land we could claim from the sea,  our polders could never hope to match the immense scale of the American wheatbelt. No, instead we would harvest our knowledge fields.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today we face another crisis. Not instigated by American ships, but by American mortgages.

The housing bubble burst, stock markets crashed, our economies faltered and jobs disappeared. Election results show that the ‘easy solutions’ have - once again - gained popular support: close the borders; halt European integration; protect national companies.

I reject those ‘solutions’. Strongly.

This crisis - like the ones before - presents a test: will we sell stagnation as progress? Or do we choose real reform and investment in future knowledge?

What we need  is a renewed commitment to invest, long term, in the entire knowledge cycle.

From education at every level to research, innovation and entrepreneurship. Not just in the Netherlands, but in the whole of Europe. Why? Because together, we face a momentous challenge. We must make the Netherlands attractive, prosperous and safe. A cultural, artistic and scientific beacon for the 21st century. A place with that special combination of tolerance curiosityand the desire to achieve.

That combination demands good education; the life force of our economy and the energy that renews our society. A sustainable source. The only source which multiplies when shared. The only source we should strive to exhaust.

History teaches us that cultures, countries and companies , that fail to invest in research and development, sooner or later, fail to exist. Often, that failure comes earlier than expected.

Would Japan have made its economic leap without Commodore Perry? Would Wageningen University have looked the same today, if the Netherlands had refused American grain?

Ladies and gentlemen, Our planet’s population is growing. Yes, the green revolution prevented the gloomiest predictions - made by Thomas Malthus and the club of Rome - from happening. But the environmental pressure of an increasing number of people, each with a growing ecological footprint, means we need to face up to some stark realities.

More often, and ever more severely, we find ourselves confronted with the forces of nature:

an oil leak beneath the deepest waters of the Gulf of Mexico; devastating floods in Pakistan; or untameable wildfires in Russia. Economic development has thus far gone hand in hand with greater pollution and greater damage to nature. More people than ever can afford a ‘western’ diet. Already, as much as twelve percent of CO-2 emissions is caused by meat production. As my colleague in parliament,  Marianne Thieme - of the AnimalParty –  likes to put it:  “A vegetarian who drives a Hummer is still more eco-friendly, than a meat eater in a Toyota Prius.”

The “production” of cheap meat threatens our wellbeing in other ways as well. Epidemics, like SARS, Q-fever or the Mexican flu, passing from intensively farmed animals to humans, have forced us to spend millions on vaccines during the last couple of years.  

Progress requires both technological innovations and awareness of lifestyle changes. We need not only to improve our fuels, foods and farms, but also to think about what we eat, what it means for the planet and for our wallets. And I think the theme you choose for today, ‘Nature as the basis’, should always be the starting point.

Unfortunately, the supply of bright minds with fresh ideas on how to solve these growing problems is slowing down. Why? The Innovation platform drew up a long list of troubling statistics:

  • relatively, the knowledge and skills of Dutch 15-year-olds are declining;
  • the number of teachers who lack the proper qualifications is rising.
  • too many students drop out of college; leaving us with too few science students and researchers;
  • and investment in R&D is too low.

These very factors determine a nation’s competitiveness, and the worlds’ capacity for solving problems.  

Countries at the top of the Global Competitiveness Index have a coherent, national research and innovation strategy: an integrative vision on knowledge creation, Ranging from education to innovation. Spanning schools and universities, government and business.

Ladies and gentlemen, our knowledge economy needs both focus and mass. It is fragmented

and driven by the lowest common denominator. What we need is not only more money, but also specialisation,  and participation. That’s why I want to join forces:

  • - I ask you to create world class knowledge, to be internationally competitive, and to cooperate with business to strengthen innovation.
  • - I ask businesses to invest in R&D,  to apply scientific knowledge.
  • - In return, government needs to formulate clear priorities;
  • - And finally, you may expect significant additional investment.

Do we have a deal?

Ladies and gentlemen, I will begin with my end of the bargain: long term investments in education and research. Our investments in knowledge fall short of our ambitions. Other Western democracies outspend us. During the election campaign, education and research appeared to have found  many new friends. Unfortunately, now that the elections are over, I can only conclude that few promises were followed by actions or Euros.

Yes, public funding is scarce, our public debt is higher than ever before, and shifting the burden of debt to the generations to come cannot continue indefinitely. But, as Jos Engelen, the chairman of the Dutch Organisation for Scientific Research, recently put it: “Research isn’t something you can put on temporary standby”.

Although politics and society are more polarised than ever before - a trend I will fight continuously - the need for good education and research is something we can all agree on. We need new political samurai to convince both sides of the political isle of the need to invest now. Left and right. Progressives and conservatives.

Ladies and gentlemen, in the book “Globalisations muse” John Aubrey Douglass analyses why the United States is so successful when it comes to innovation. His first conclusion echoes that of the Innovation Platform: Investment in American R&D is high. Much higher than in Europe. The more money, the better the researchers and students a university attracts. Harvard’s equity equals the entire Dutch education budget. Five to eight percent of European researchers are currently working in the United States. And they are not planning to come back. No less than 8 of the 10 best universities in the World are American. So the United States makes conscious investments, aiming to excel where they are already superior.

This is our problem in the Netherlands: we simply can’t choose. Everything and everyone is important. But unfortunately, we aren’t good at everything. Still, every department and special-interest group defines its own priorities. 9 ministries divide 2 billion euros to stimulate innovation.

2 billion divided between
  • 13 themes
  • 120 institutions
  • and more than 40 programmes.

The innovation platform got off to an ambitious start  by identifying a number of key areas. But, the number of areas has grown so that they now cover 70% of our economy! That’s a recipe for creating a landscape of speed bumps rather than mountain peaks.

My party advocates creating a National Innovation council, as suggested by Robbert Dijkgraaf, president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Narrowly defined key areas should be coupled with a small number of high class institutions. We still have far too many small funds, which together support a fragmented set of small-scale, unsustainable projects.

Government should strengthen our new focus by simplifying and combining these funds. In order to secure a long term investment horizon with a minimum of bureaucracy, more FES money  should be used for structural investment in knowledge and innovation. Continued funding should be coupled with clear targets. Not for tomorrow, but for a 10-year period. 

In my vision, you will not be seeing politicians during that decade. But they may expect results, at the end.

Ladies and gentlemen, public funds alone can not take us to the top. As Douglass suggests in his Globalization’s Muse: “the US [was] the first to understand the nexus of science and economic policy”. In other words: every area of excellence consists of a network of organizations, concentrated around a strong centre of learning. This major American lesson has already been followed here: you have made cooperation between research, education and entrepreneurship a priority.

The cluster of knowledge-intensive industries that work together in food valley delivers results. But more must be done. Private investment in R&D lags behind other countries. And may I present your business partners with another comparison:  in the European Union 49% of all researchers are employed by the business sector, compared to nearly 80% in the U.S..

Ladies and gentlemen, I will finish with education.

One name - a name that must still ring familiar in your ears - has kept higher education in its grip for over a year.  Although, you might remember my reluctance about creating an ever growing stack of reports, I wholeheartedly embrace the one by Mr. Veerman, former politician and also well-known here in Wageningen. Or should I say, I am glad he embraced

my election programme? Anyway,  his call for investments, profile and excellence fully reflects my ideas for our higher education.

The Netherlands doesn’t have too many universities and colleges. It has too many universities and colleges trying to do the same. The European academic community functions as an internal market for ideas. In that market, specialisation and excellence are rewarded.

This may sound superfluous here. I am aware that I am speaking at a place which has chosen

a sharp definition for itself. That marks you as an example.I want more universities to choose a profile. That does not mean everybody has to become Oxford upon the Rhine or Cambridge by the Sea. Nor does it mean that everyone should focus on one sector only. There is not one but many different excellencies.

We need excellent education, as well as excellent research. We need excellent lawyers, as well as excellent farmers. And we need all of the above on a regional, national and international level. I want universities to be explicit about their benchmarks. And I want government to judge universities on the basis of that profile.

I challenge you to make that profile globally comparable. The U-map, a new European classification structure, makes that possible. I hope you will use it.

So, Wageningen, what will be your league?  Which international academic hotspot will soon be queuing up to offer a joint degree with you? I think that you should be able to make that leap.To become a global testbed for green innovation because of the clear priorities and choices you have made. And I want other Dutch and European institutes of higher education to follow that example.

Ladies and gentlemen, college level education is globalisation’s muse. Universities and colleges spread knowledge around the world, and prepare students for life in an international society. But they also bring international society to our cities.

As a former mayor of Wageningen I am proud to refer, not just to the wonderful military parade and the history of Hotel De Wereld, but also to the diversity of the people who work and live here together. Together with New York and Amsterdam, Wageningen boasts the greatest number of different nationalities on earth. They are your students, teachers, and researchers.  They are our future source of welfare. So wouldn’t it be the least we can do to help foreign students find a room?

Ladies and gentlemen, I come to my conclusion. The question is: do we have a deal?

A deal that will see government, education, science and companies take joint responsibility for the future of our country. With more money and less priorities we can bring our country back to the top of the innovationlists. Where the Japanese were frigthened by a steamship, this summer I had the honour to baptize the worlds first Solar Energy Boat. A Dutch innovation created by Dutch students and researchers.

Let’s load it, not with canons, not with grain, but with Dutch knowledge and innovation.
And let’s sail it out over the world.

Do we have a deal?

I wish you a wonderful year.