Speech 2010 by Prof. Robbert Dijkgraaf

This speech was given at the Dies Natalis ceremony in 2010: 'Transitions in Science and Science Policy'.

Robbert Dijkgraaf

Your Excellencies,

Mrs. Representative of the Queens Commissioner ,

Mr. Mayor,

Mr. Rector Magnificus,

Mr. Chair of the Executive Board,

Distinguished Guests,

Dear Colleagues,

It is a great honour and privilege to speak to you at this great institution and at this festive occasion. I would like to extend my sincere congratulations to you and your university.

Today’s theme, transitions, is well chosen. Our society is in a time of transition, not only politically, in between two cabinets, but also from a wider perspective. The world is trying desperately to cope with great challenges, reincarnations of the four elements of the Ancient Greeks: Earth, Fire, Water and Air, these days known as the environment, sustainable energy, water resources, and a changing climate. Science teaches us that such transitional periods are characterized by uncertainties, wild oscillations, competing forces – and we recognize these effects all around us –, but such periods also offer great opportunities, opportunities to look forward and to change.

In complicated times we need a sense of orientation. But even in research it is easy to lose perspective in a space of at least three dimensions: scientific excellence, societal relevance, and economic potential. Can we combine these three elements into one coherent framework in our mind?

It is definitely not easy, at least when you are Dutch. Some years ago several questions were posed to the citizens of the European Union, questions that illustrate this dilemma rather strikingly. The first question was: Do you believe that scientific and technological progress will help to cure illnesses like AIDS and cancer?

The Dutch were at the very top of that list: 97 percent agreed that this was indeed the case, more than the inhabitants of any other European country. The second statement was: Only by applying the most advanced technologies can our economy become more competitive.

Here the outcome was not so positive. Only 55 percent of the Dutch agreed, fifth place from the bottom. In this case Germany was at the top. Finally, the question was raised: Do you think your government should spend more money on scientific research and – this question was very honestly phrased – less on other things. Here the Netherlands ended up at the very bottom of the list with only 25 percent of the population agreeing to this proposition, less than half the number in our neighbouring countries.

This typical Dutch phenomenon is part of a deeper current: a knowledge paradox, or even a knowledge crisis. The world is getting more and more complicated, but we seem to want to know less and less about it. Science is probing deeper, further away from everyday experience, addressing issues of greater complexity in increased detail. In this process it runs the risk of becoming invisible and unapproachable. The road from cutting‐edge research to the general public becomes long and winding. One can easily get lost. An urge for unnecessary simplification and convenient short‐cuts looms.

The quality of science, or knowledge in general, is rarely discussed in the public debate. At the level of primary and secondary education we hear more complaints about the management structure, the low pay, the overcrowded classrooms, than about the quality of teachers and students. Yet our country is consistently dropping in education rankings that are based on the relative levels of knowledge in the world.

At the same time, and this is the paradox, because of all these extra details and nuances, science finds more and more applications. Technology invades, sometimes invisibly, our everyday life. It can literally enter our bloodstream. In our pockets we have more computing power that the Apollo space program. The line separating science and society becomes increasingly blurry. It evolves from a straight line into a fractal. In the end science will be infinitely far away, yet infinitesimally close.

Part of this lack of interest is ignorance of the deep effects science has had and will have in shaping our lives. It is the hidden force pushing history forward. As the Dutch writer Rudy Kousbroek has said: Many think that the whistle of the train conductor is the force that moves the train engine. It hard to imagine that only a few centuries ago the average life span in Europe was only one third of what it is now. The biggest step for mankind might not have been the landing on the Moon, but the introduction of personal hygiene. Less glamorous, but certainly with more impact.

What are the problems holding us back and how can they be addressed? A first issue is time – or better, lack of time. So let me be brief about his. Science has its own characteristic rhythm. Its heartbeat is four years, the typical time it takes to complete a Ph.D. thesis. This might be considered short in view of the much longer periods necessary for solving complicated and difficult problems: building a space telescope, decoding the human genome, or solving Fermat’s Last Theorem which took more than 350 years. But four years becomes a long period when contrasted with the fast pace of politics and business. The average time span of a government administration here in The Netherlands seems to be heading towards two years. CEO’s of big companies are typically only three years in the top position. Science only thrives in a stable climate where one can plan 5 to 10 years ahead. Responsible policy takes a long‐term view.

A second issue is growing complexity. Life is getting more complicated. You know there are good scientific reasons for this. In biology it is called evolution, in physics the second law of thermodynamics, in mathematics nonlinear dynamics, and in economics globalisation. We see this complexity reflected in the increase in the size of the scientific community. Hundred years ago there were hardly a thousand physicists in the world. These days it takes more than 10.000 scientists and engineers 25 years and billions of euro’s to build the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the world’s largest experiment.

The results of the Atlas experiment, one of the four main detectors, will be jointly reported by more than 2000 co-authors. Your name really has to start with two A’s if you want to appear on the cover page of these papers.

These large‐scale, multinational projects are presenting huge challenges. The world held its breath when the LHC was switched on in September 2008, afraid that the Earth would be destroyed by the formation of an aggressive black hole. I saved the newspaper with the headline “Will the world end today?” But it was more like Monty Python's Flying Circus weather report: “The world is about to end; mountains will split open; seas will overflow their shores; the air will be sucked out of the heavens; the planets flung from their orbits. In the afternoon, however, conditions will moderate, rain will contract to the east and temperatures should be average for the time of year.”

But a week later the machine did indeed stop working. Not because of a miniature Big Bang, but a faulty electrical connection between two magnets, probably a soldering mistake during a safety exercise. If anything, the quality control in such a massive experiment was not adequate.

These days there is a lot of discussion about another complex science project: the IPCC assessment reports on global warming. Here many questions have been raised. Is the best science being used? Are critical voices heard? Are potential conflicts of interests avoided? How does the IPCC deal with activism and political aims? Are the statements about global warming similar to Monty Python’s weather forecast as some climate sceptics claim? These worries risk the erosion of the authority and respect of science. Fortunately, the United Nations and the IPCC have announced that a thorough independent review of its processes and procedures is necessary.

Here a third element enters: the interactions of science with the world of policy and advice. It is obvious that more scientific research is needed to address the great challenges of the world. This knowledge will bring with it an increased need of scientific advice of the same high standards. And clear demarcation lines where science ends and policy takes over. How far can a scientist go and still have firm ground under her or his feet?

It is my profound belief that it is possible to combine two elements: the independence of scientific investigation, and a broad and profound engagement with the world. We can steer the ship of science so that we can avoid the modern equivalents of the sea monsters of Scylla and Charybdis: the irrelevance and isolation of the ivory tower, and the trap of political activism and conflicts of interest. Good navigation requires the three pillars of professionalism: independence, knowledge, and responsibility.

Luckily science not only creates problems, it also offers solutions. As one climate scientist said recently: “Good science is the best revenge.” In the words of the great mathematician David Hilbert: “We must know, we will know.” In a healthy and free society science will flourish. As far as knowledge of the natural world is concerned, there is no higher authority than science. It is the best we have, and if something better comes along, we will all embrace it, move over, and call this science.

This brings me to my fourth point: the value of science.

We observe that for a long time the R&D efforts of Dutch companies have been falling back. World‐wide industry is spending less on long‐term fundamental research. One sometimes has a sentimental longing for the good old days when big corporations such as Philips, IBM, and AT&T were able to sustain large laboratories that attracted the brightest minds and could offer almost unlimited resources and freedom of research. But those were different times. Corporations were effectively granted state monopolies and generated exceptionally generous revenues. These days the business cycle is short and brutal. Knowledge is also being spread around much faster, often literally with the speed of light. Open access to papers, reports and data will be the future. Knowledge is becoming a public good and public institutions will have to carry a greater share of the research burden.

I feel universities are up to the job. Let us not forget the significant contributions they make to the regional and national economy. Take an extremely successful example in this respect: MIT. It has been calculated that more than 5,000 companies have been founded by MIT graduates and faculty, on average more than 35 a year. Examples include technology giants such as Texas Instruments, McDonnell Douglas, Akamai and Genentech. If MIT was a country, it would employ a million people and have a GDP of more than 100 billion dollars, and would be the 24th largest economy in the world.

In the Netherlands, innovation seems to be a funny subject. Many giggle when the subject is mentioned. We speak of education and we think of teachers and students. We speak of research and we think of scientists and scholars. We speak of innovation and our mind goes blank. What is an innovator? But entrepreneurs that take ideas and technology and translate these into new products and services are the engine of our society. The potential is unlimited. In one of my favourite New Yorker cartoons two cavemen rest against the wall of a cave and one sighs: “Org discovered fire, and Thorak invented the wheel. There is nothing left for us.” This reminds me of two definitions of technology I recently heard: “technology is everything invented after you were born.” Or: “technology is everything that doesn’t work.”

Fundamental knowledge is a rich economic source. When James Faraday, in 1850, was questioned by William Gladstone, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Britain, about the practical value of electricity, his answer was: “I don’t know. But I am sure that one day, you will tax it.” And did he tax it! Our life is simply inconceivable without electricity.

It is difficult to see these potentials ahead. When Thomas Edison in 1882 illuminated the first four hundred electric lights in New York City, including twenty‐seven in the editorial rooms of the New York Times, the start of the electric age ended up in a column on page 8 of next day’s paper: In every way satisfactory, the paper concluded. Although the new electric lamps looked just like the old gas ones, they were brighter, didn’t flicker, and didn’t stink.

Given these challenges, what are the opportunities to improve science in the Netherlands? I would say two things: to make connections and choices.

First, connections. We have to realise that education, research and innovation all are parts of one thing: the power of knowledge. One typically takes only one of two perspectives: either from the left or from the right, politically speaking. From the left one sees the need to develop new talent from every social, cultural, and ethnic background. From the right one sees jobs and the economic potential of inventions and ideas. Both sides should be combined in a comprehensive national research and innovation strategy with a good balance between top‐down and bottom‐up policy. Government should not micromanage science, but it should stimulate national coherence and synergy between academia and industry.

Second, choices. We have to build on our strengths. The competition for talent and resources will move to the European and global theatre. Abroad the Dutch experience the Cruyff effect, which in academia is often called the Wageningen effect. The international competition knows very well where our particular strengths lie, sometimes better than we do. In this respect the focus and organisation within your university, and the domain of food and nutrition in general, is an inspiration to others.

Why should we give science and education the highest priority, in such economic dire times? My 11‐year old son, to whom I often turn for a word of wisdom, had his own answer when I was off again to give a speech about this subject. “Aha, I see, to get more people like you, but then smarter.”

But there is a more profound answer. Here, at an institution that today celebrates 92 years of connecting in a powerful way to the needs of the nation and the needs of the world, that attracts students from all across the globe, and that prides itself with the contributions of its faculty and graduates to the quality of life, I want to repeat the visionary words of the great teacher Howard Thurman. “Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”