Interview with Pieter de Witte

Pieter de Witte has been Head of Strategic Partnerships in the NWO's Science domain since 1 April 2017.

Who is Pieter de Witte?

Having studied chemistry at Radboud University in Nijmegen, Pieter de Witte (born in 1975) went on to earn his doctorate in supramolecular chemistry there as well, under the supervision of Roeland Nolte. De Witte remembers Nolte, now an emeritus professor, as an inspiring scientist who frequently collaborated with other researchers. Nolte's fame opened doors for him everywhere, especially abroad. De Witte did post-doctoral research in Strasbourg. "There came a point where I decided to go back to the Netherlands and look for a future outside academia,” De Witte says. “I did end up missing working in a laboratory for quite some time." 

Fighting for free science

In 2004 De Witte started working as a programme officer with the Technology Foundation STW – which later became NWO Domain 'Applied and Engineering Sciences' (TTW). His primary focus there was NanoNed, a successful initiative by the Dutch government that supported research into nanotechnology, with 200 research projects in a consortium involving of seven universities, TNO and Philips. NanoNed was one of the programmes supported by the Economic Structure Reinforcement Fund (FES), which drew from the revenues earned from the extraction of natural gas.
De Witte: "Those FES programmes had a big impact, and it is a real shame that they no longer exist. After four years at the Technology Foundation STW, I began working at what was then known as the Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter (FOM), where I focused on industrial partnership programmes (IPPs) – programmes directed towards public-private partnerships. I admired FOM for having established the IPP instrument already in 2004, providing early support for hard-core, curiosity-driven research. The nature of the research done in IPP programmes is also very fundamental and of very high quality."

De Witte feels that the position of science has changed: "Both politicians and the general public expect research to deliver returns. While companies are innovating in other ways, adopting more 'open innovation' and co-creation models, the Dutch government is taking a more active role in the science and innovation debate through its departments. Also the position occupied by NWO has changed. The way I see it, besides having to show the societal and economic value of research, you also have to carry on fighting for free research. The only way to do that is to demonstrate its relevance and the role it plays in innovation, in both the short and the long term – to show how free, untethered research is linked to society. In my new role at the NWO I will be able to do just that."

Pieter de WitteImage: Pieter de Witte Photo: NWO

A challenging job

As head of strategic partnerships, De Witte has a 'transecting' or linking function. The NWO domain 'Science' (ENW) has four thematic teams in which all seven disciplines have a place. Together with Kas Maessen, Head of Procedures and Quality, De Witte is a linking officer whose responsibilities include not only public-private partnerships (PPPs) but also internationalisation, knowledge utilisation, external agendas, facilities, thematic programmes and the 'Top Sectors' (the key economic sectors in the Netherlands). He explains that none of these areas are linked to any single discipline.
De Witte: "Together with Board of the NWO domain 'Science' (ENW), we are looking at how best to approach the tasks at hand. Structuring ENW as an organisation is a big job. The four organisational components that merged to form ENW – i.e. Earth and Life Sciences (ALW), Chemical Sciences (CW), Physical Sciences (EW) and the Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter (FOM) – each had different ways of collaborating. It is quite a challenge to harmonise those differences or to find a place for them, i.e. to develop a collective vision for ENW and to link it with that of NWO." The funding instruments of NWO, including those for PPPs, are another area where harmonisation will have to be achieved, in terms of both the working methods and the instruments themselves. Everyone will need to be on the same page in that regard. "We'll be working on that for the coming months," De Witte says.

Together

"So we have to agree not only on the kind of funding instruments we offer but also, and more importantly, on how we want to do our work. How should new developments be addressed? Should NWO take an active role in steering this? Can we help the governmental departments articulate their scientific questions? NWO is more than just a funding agency. In my opinion, NWO should become more visible as an organisation with the expertise and the entrepreneurial spirit to connect people, to steer agendas and to forge collaborations. People should come to NWO for advice says De Witte. He continues: "As servants of science we need to be leaders in exactly that aspect. You can only assume the latter role if you operate transparently and according to high standards, and if you listen well and have an eye for the bigger picture."

"At the FOM office in Utrecht we often met with researchers", says De Witte. While he now has less contact with scientists in his new role at the NWO office in The Hague, he does have much more contact with departments. He supports a single, unified NWO to deal with external relations: "If someone goes to give a talk at a department, we should also inform other domains or even NWO-i of that, in case the topic is relevant to them. The Ministry of Economic Affairs recently asked NWO to advise on key enabling technologies. It was a single, unified NWO that they consulted, so that's a good example of how the new NWO can work."

De Witte continues: "An important step for ENW will be made with the structuring of seven advisory committees, or 'tables' as they will probably be called. These committees will play an important role in liaising with the scientific community, but also – together with the board and secretariat of ENW – in strategising, advising, programming and networking.” De Witte is thrilled about it: "The seven ENW scientific fields are already fairly well organised, but I expect that this will be what actually cements the domain 'Science' (ENW). We are good at collaborating in the Netherlands and now we need to connect the scientific disciplines. This should facilitate an easy formation of thematic committees that will be able to respond quickly to new developments, for example."

International activities

Internationalisation is an important part of De Witte's work, and it needs a new strategy. De Witte explains: "The subject is enormously broad. Who do you want to collaborate with, and why? What is the best way to organise that? How can you make links with Horizon 2020? When should you actively lobby in Brussels, etc.? The outcome of this discussion will also contribute to the new NWO strategy. In the meantime, the NWO board has decided in connection with its contribution to the Top Sectors in the period 2018–2019 (amounting to EUR 100m per year in public-private research activities) that ten per cent of the funding for research programmes can go to projects abroad. In this way, NWO wants to facilitate the flow of knowledge and eventually also strengthen the knowledge base in the Netherlands."

What do you find most attractive about your work?

De Witte: "My new role enables me to help shape research policy. In the NWO Top Sector Team, for instance, I get to join the discussion on the future of the Top Sectors. On the other hand, I still have my feet on the shop floor, as it were, being concretely involved in a number of projects. I'd like to be able to visit the universities more, because I want to be where the research is taking place. Although there is definitely light at the end of the tunnel, it's still a bit hectic within ENW. That's logical because we've kept the shop open for business in the middle of a reorganisation while everyone is doing her or his utmost to keep the plates spinning. It will take time for us to become a single, unified NWO. Management is dealing with things energetically, but there's a lot of pressure. We've agreed with ENW management not to send emails in the evening or during the weekend, as that could give people the wrong signal. That said, one of my colleagues was recently wondering why he got so many emails at 7am on a Monday morning. We have to move towards a culture of just getting on with the work you enjoy doing, and not putting people under pressure."

Where would you like to be in two years time?

De Witte wants to settle his position within a year, together with colleagues in coordinating roles on the topics described above. De Witte: "NWO has so much expertise on board that I'm confident it'll happen." The next step is to develop a vision for the future. And he has another wish for NWO itself: "I want NWO to be an organisation that people are keen to come work for, and one that attracts good people. I want it to be an organisation that develops talent. And I think we should be putting people in the limelight, for instance by joining the group of organisations that nominate candidates for the 'Young Civil Servant of the Year Award' or by aiming to become 'Employer of the Year'."

Transition NWO

For more information about the NWO-transition, please visit the website of NWO-I (The Institutes Organisation of NWO) and the general NWO-website.