Interview with Tanja Kulkens

As of 1 April 2017, Tanja Kulkens is Head of Chemistry and Physics in the Science Domain of NWO.

Who is Tanja Kulkens?

"During a postdoc position, I realised that I did not want to continue as a researcher. As I found research interesting, I looked for a job that included both policy and research", says Tanja Kulkens (1962). She studied chemistry at VU University Amsterdam and received her PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology in Amsterdam and at the University of California. She subsequently did a postdoc at the Academic Medical Center Amsterdam.
In 1994, she started as a policy officer at the Scheikundig Onderzoek in Nederland foundation (SON) of NWO (forerunner of the Chemical Sciences Division). Since 2002, Kulkens was the deputy director Chemical Sciences (CW)/head Chemistry at NWO. She is now head of Chemistry and Physics within the Science domain. "I enjoy being involved in different subjects. At CW, I was involved in the open competition and individual grants, the top sectors and thematic and public-private partnerships, among other things. Physics and chemistry worked together in some of the programmes, so I am already quite familiar with physics.’

The new NWO

Kulkens is really pleased that the organisation of NWO is changing to a simpler, more efficient structure with four domains. Science is the most fantastic domain, with all the natural and physical sciences brought together, she says.
Kulkens: "Physics and chemistry form the biggest group within the domain. Leading this is a brilliant new challenge. Within the Science domain, physics and chemistry will be able to collaborate with each other and with the other disciplines, but also with the other domains and the institutes organisation."
Kulkens emphasises that physics and chemistry were not separate worlds. In recent years, research developed across broad terrains. As examples she states energy, research into materials and the building blocks of life, as well as the institutes AMOLF and DIFFER, where some boundaries were already blurred. Within the Sector Plan Physics and Chemistry, the disciplines also work closely together. She expects that chemists and physicists will benefit from the possibilities in the new NWO, thanks to the increased ease to work across boundaries and to collaborate. Researchers in chemistry and physics always had good relationships with the NWO divisional offices. "And that should continue to be the case in the new NWO as well", says Kulkens.

Tanja KulkensPhoto: Tanja Kulkens

Connections with the domains and the institutes organisation

Connection is a keyword in Kulkens' opinion: "Although the institutes organisation is now a separate entity, we must ensure that the existing links are retained within the scientific disciplines and between employees. The transition must not lead to separate units that work in isolation from each other. Within physics, there are already more or less natural connections between the Science domain and the institutes organisation for the institutes AMOLF, Nikhef, DIFFER and ARCNL. I hope that in the new NWO we will also be able to realise interactions between the Science domain and the institutes CWI, ASTRON, SRON and NIOZ. We are thinking about how this can best be organised. In any case, the intention is that employees are deployable at different positions and continue to develop."

What will make you satisfied two years from now?

Kulkens does not have to think for long about this: "If the outside world says that NWO has improved, and that researchers, relations and employees are enthusiastic about NWO." As the new head, Kulkens is holding meetings with the employees to gain an idea about what their work involves and what motivates them. How do you unite so many different groups within NWO? The fact that NWO has two locations, in The Hague and Utrecht, is making this an even bigger challenge still. Kulkens: "I intend to actively involve employees so that we can achieve this together. My observation is that employees across the entire spectrum are committed to realising the new NWO, with the possibilities to improve things, but also to keep hold of the good things from the past. The spirit to achieve fantastic things for science remains unabated." (AvS)

Transition NWO

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