Interview with Marjolein Robijn

As of 1 April 2017, Marjolein Robijn is the head of Life Sciences within the NWO Domain Science (ENW).

Who is Marjolein Robijn?

Marjolein Robijn (1978) studied medical biology at VU University Amsterdam. She did her PhD research in the Parasitology Department of Leiden University, where she used mass spectrometry to study glycans and glycoproteins of the parasite Schistosoma mansoni.

For Science

Robijn is full of enthusiasm about working in close connection with science. As a student she was enthralled by the notion that science actually shifted the boundaries of human "knowledge", being a process of moving from "not knowing something to knowing something". "By asking good questions and keeping an open mind, you can do something of significance for humankind. That is what constantly drives me," says Robijn.
Already during her doctoral research, she discovered that she preferred to work to promote science rather than doing research herself. "That's because I was looking for a wider perspective and realised that I really like the broader contours. I like policy and making connections. I like linking 'leaps' in thinking and bringing people together. I enjoy being the spider at the centre of the web, as it were, and I especially like helping make other people enthusiastic about a plan. Working at the interface between policy and research is fascinating to me."

Marjolein RobijnImage: Marjolein Robijn Photographer: Bram Saeyz.


Since she began working at NWO in 2009, Robijn has fulfilled a variety of roles within the organisation. She started out as a policy officer for the Institutions cluster of the Policy-Supporting Research (BOO) Department. There, she worked on the previous institutional evaluation of CWI (the Dutch national research institute for mathematics and computer science) and SRON (Netherlands Institute for Space Research), and her tasks included evaluating the knowledge-utilisation and valorisation plans of those institutions.
Through its various component institutes, she became familiar with FOM, the former Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter. Robijn: "At times I missed the actual scientific content and I wanted to work more closely with that again. Moreover, I saw how FOM organised the field and managed to build up its network in a sustainable way, and that's something I wanted to know more about." When Wim van Saarloos, then director of FOM, took her on board, Robijn began working for both NWO Physics and FOM: "That gave me experience in working with the primary process, but also in developing strategic agendas in collaboration with the research field itself. I was also able to take up my role as a connector between NWO and FOM." In that way, Robijn was one of the people responsible for the strategic initiative for the interdisciplinary theme of Materials. She admits that, until then, she had only had a limited knowledge of physics, but she was completely open to it and became increasingly fascinated by it. She chuckles: "During my son's swimming lessons I would brush up my knowledge of materials. I wanted to be able to easily follow the discussions of the strategic committee on materials."

What drives the head of Life Sciences?

Considering how large the field is, the Life Sciences team is a relatively small group, says Robijn. "We are super efficient in the processes. Due to the limited capacity, the level of contact with the research field is not yet where I would like it to be." She describes two initiatives that she thinks will improve things: "We are going to organise a national conference for the life sciences, something comparable to what Physics@Veldhoven is for physics, what CHAINS is for chemistry, and what ICT Open is for computer science. The board has also decided to establish an advisory panel for life sciences. Among other things, that committee will serve as a linchpin when it comes to coordinating content with the field, but it will also advise the board on strategic matters. The outlines for that were sketched during a working conference held on 23 October 2017. The leading idea will continue to be a well-organised field. The goal is a more effective collaboration and coordination with NWO. In fact, the NWO Domain Science (ENW) gets seven advisory panels and this is one of those."

What if anything will life scientists notice about NWO’s new course and the efforts of the Life Sciences team?

Robijn: "Hopefully they will experience a closer contact with the ENW office, thanks to our increased efforts as a platform and our role as a broker. More than in the past, we will be able to organise and facilitate meetings for life scientists, and it is our dream to help steer things and to take advantage of national opportunities. One example from the past is the agenda for strategic materials for the Netherlands. That generates the kind of attention that individual researchers could not achieve on their own, and it indicates the fields in which science is going to develop. The goals are focus and mass, and being able to make the most of opportunities in collaboration with other disciplines."

Where would Robijn like to be two years from now?

She hopes that the processes and the management will be coordinated across the whole of NWO, and that no one will have any reason to be frustrated about that. "It is no secret that researchers tend to find it difficult to work with new systems such as ISAAC. We still have a long way to go to fulfil our mission of 'unity in diversity' and to make things easier for scientists. I hope that NWO gets the time it needs to ensure a successful transition and that the level of trust will grow. For my team I hope that the connection with the field, as well as with adjacent fields such as technical and medical sciences, will increase."

What does Robijn especially like about the transition?

Robijn: "The teaming within ENW. In both Utrecht and The Hague, teams with a diverse make up are active beyond the boundaries of the old disciplines. That is something we need to develop further. We are still in the phase of searching and finding. That means we are able to look critically at why we do things the way we do them. We need time to really get to know each other's fields. It also means that the participants will need to have the courage to let go of some old ways of doing things. I want to call on everyone to have patience and trust, to think in terms of finding solutions and to take ownership. It is a major operation that has only been underway since 1 April." She is convinced that the teaming within ENW will also have a positive impact within the field: "Our collaboration is making it easier for people in the field to develop cross-over initiatives at boundaries between disciplines, top sectors, etc. The real challenge for science is to find answers to the questions that society poses. As those answers will never be monodisciplinary, we will need to work together on the basis of the strength of the various disciplines."

In conclusion

Robijn: "If you work for NWO, you contribute to facilitating and optimising the scientific landscape. How nice is that? That is what I think about when I get up every day. We can make the difference."

Transition NWO

For more information about the NWO-transition, please visit the website of NWO-I (Institution organisation of NWO) and the NWO-website.