Flashback to the Future of Science public debate with Hans Clevers

Predicting the future is not easy… till the start we kept wondering how many people would make it to our 2nd WYA event, on a sunny Thursday afternoon (June 12th) also the kick off day of the soccer World Cup? The lecture and debate with Prof. Hans Clevers, president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) turned out to be  very well attended: > 300 people in Orion and many more people watched the recordings online (via this link).

Photo by Geert Wiegertjes

To set the scene Hans Clevers rolled out the quantitative history of research funding in the Netherlands since the year 2000. Perhaps boring politics yet of major impact the 10% loss of total research funds in recent years and years to come, together with substantial reallocation of funds from fundamental research to  the top-sectors. A key challenge for the KNAW clearly is to secure research funds for fundamental research and Alfa and Gamma sciences. Why did the government shift its research funding policy so dramatically? Simple answer: there is no economic value in science and education according to the current CPB models, no wonder they suffer budget cuts in times of economic crises. Luckily this all too easy practice is about to change given the agroforestry inspired insights of Hans Clevers: ‘Value science and education as seeds planted to become a forest’. This vital new branch on the economic models may see the light in the near future, not only making the Future of science more bright in The Netherlands but also in Europe.

Photo by Geert Wiegertjes

A lot of interest in Wageningen in ‘The Future of Science’, but what were the actual thoughts? We reserved almost an hour to find out, just enough for the most burning questions and food for thought for months to come. A few highlights as mnemonic to pick up the discussion, using the propositions and the outcome of the poll.

Proposition 1: Career prospects young scientists

a) Young scientists have poor career prospects in The Netherlands, leading to brain-drain 46%

b) Young scientists have excellent career prospects, provided they are very good 54%

Surprising result given the projected very severe budget limitations for research by the Dutch government? Good to see there is optimism amongst the young researchers, perhaps because indeed the world is larger than The Netherlands alone... Europe does increase its investments in research and innovation and research experience abroad has added value for your personal development and the establishment of your research network.

In The Netherlands the way to develop a research career is to get into a tenure-track. This career track leads from assistant to associate to full professor. A system with very positive aspects such as providing a transparent career development plan for ambitious young scientists that are successful in obtaining grants, publishing papers and deliver high quality teaching (at Wageningen University teaching quality is an explicit component of the tenure track). A main question that popped up is whether it is the best strategy to only have researchers in tenure track. Is it not a good idea to also have an alternative track for people who are great in what they do in terms of teaching and/or research but do not want to become a professor? A question that will re-occur in future discussions... 

Proposition 2: Research funding

a) Public research funds are best invested in a few excellent researchers, working on a few key

research themes 14%

b) Public research funds are best invested in a large number of very good researchers, representing a

broad diversity of research areas 86%

The quality of researchers is easily evaluated, just look at their funding success rate! Right? Not quite so, at least not when the funding success rates are below 25 to 30%. Given that the current funding success rates are in the order of 10% and lower it is obvious that there is a fair chair of randomness in winners and losers. Doubtful whether the planned restrictions in number of calls and eligible applicants will be the sustainable solution to secure innovative research in the Netherlands. Sounds like a way better idea to increase the overall budget for research and education...

Of course there will always be budget constraints and choices have to be made. Not surprisingly the majority would like to see the budget divided over the majority. On the other hand research has become more capital intensive so that funds should not be too diluted and substantial enough to get some science done. Effective science and innovation funding requires an optimal balance between specific, well-funded research and a broad diversity of blue sky research. Focusing solely on a few hot research topics and lucky few top-notch scientist is, according to Marten Scheffer, unlikely to be a sustainable choice because of three main reasons: 1) the sense of unfair treatment will drive the majority of scientist out of their mind (as we learned from Frans de Waal this is an evolutionary deeply engrained response), 2) returns on investment are larger where baseline resources are lower, 3) investing in a diverse range of topics can capitalize on  the power of diversity, which increases the chance for new unexpected findings to occur. The bottom line: what is the balanced mixed and will those who decide on the distribution key find it?

Universities are much more than an arena in which science is conducted, it is not in the least a place to learn and teach. But what are university staff actually teaching the students for?

Proposition 3: Primary role of universities

a) to develop students' capacity for critical, analytical and creative thinking 97%

b) to deliver graduates of high economic value 3%

A very clear answer, yet with some different underlying reasoning amongst the participants. The audience remarked that when people have well developed analytical, critical thinking and creative skills they will have a high economic value. Other people stressed that successful entrepreneurs or entrepreneurial researchers will also require great management skills, even political knowledge on patenting issues. Is research and education in fact a business undertaking? Or is it/should it be aimed at contributing to a sustainable, content and democratic society, realizing that economics are a means to that and not an ultimate goal in itself? What is clear is that high quality teaching is a prerequisite to achieve the primary role of universities well, and requires a good balance between teaching and research activities.

P.S.: Thank you for staying beyond the original allocated time, almost two hours without a break what an endurance! In fact almost the timespan needed for Gaby to run a marathon (Boston marathon in 2h37’20’’, yes he is fast at least without a giant microphone...). 

The organizing committee: Gerlinde De Deyn, Esther Turnhout & Tom Wennekes