Jos Engelen about the new NWO Strategy

17 April 2015

Even more than it did in the past, NWO is emphasising its role as a connector in its new NWO Strategy 2015-2018, published this month. As an independent, national funder of research, NWO not only wants to promote collaboration between Dutch researchers, but also between science, society and business. Hypothese interviewed the NWO Chairman, Jos Engelen. ‘Scientists and NWO must respond to a changing world.’

NWO Strategy 2015-2018NWO Strategy 2015-2018: Building on strengths, capitalising on opportunities

A new strategy for NWO: is a change of course needed?

‘NWO publishes a new strategy document every four years. This strategy is not breaking with the previous one, but building on it. When drafting it, we talked to scientists and all our other partners. We were able to establish that the Dutch science system is functioning well: our public research is conducted at universities and at institutes run by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Science (KNAW) and NWO, and NWO plays a role in that as a financial stimulator and promotor of quality. Universities appreciate the fact that we fund curiosity-driven and non-programmed research by assessing bottom-up research proposals through peer review and committees. They also consider our individual funding, the NWO Talent Scheme, extremely important – which is why it will remain as extensive as it was. It is generally acknowledged that the quality and productivity of Dutch science is high. This is partly why Dutch scientists do so well in Europe. That’s something we’re enormously proud of.’

Why, then, is the emphasis changing?

‘The world around us is changing. There are new challenges worldwide and a new Science Vision has been formulated for the Netherlands. The government wants the Netherlands to remain a top-class country for science and scientists. But worldwide competition for knowledge and talent is growing tremendously, with new players such as China, India and Brazil. Added to that, the Dutch economy must remain competitive worldwide. Moreover, there is an unremitting need to find sufficient support in society for public spending on scientific research. And our society will soon be faced with even more challenges: it won’t be long before there are nine billion of us, the climate is changing and natural resources are becoming scarce. As scientists and as NWO, we will have to respond to all these changes. Scientific research is an absolute necessity that will help us to understand these momentous developments and their interactions, come up with solutions and make the most of opportunities. More collaboration between science and business is also important if you want to take these changes seriously.’

What is NWO’s answer to all these changes?

‘NWO’s strategy flows naturally from the Science Vision. We endorse an important element in this vision: connecting the administrative organisations for science in the Netherlands more thoroughly and more effectively, in other words universities, NWO and KNAW and their institutes, the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) and large and small businesses. Two ideas are therefore at the heart of this: providing funding for excellent curiosity-driven and non-programmed research as we do already, and besides that, strengthening NWO’s role in making all these connections.’

We endorse connecting the organisations for science in the Netherlands more as mentioned in the Vision for science

‘The sticking point there is that out of the hundred proposals NWO receives, you’d really like to honour thirty on the basis of peer review, but the budgetary reality only permits fifteen to twenty awards. Since the Netherlands has stopped spending part of its natural gas income on research, it has definitely become less generous. The knowledge coalition, comprising research organisations, the employers’ organisation VNO-NCW and SME in the Netherlands, does have this on its agenda: as soon as the economic situation permits, something must be done about the lack of budget.’

How can NWO improve the condition of the scientific climate in the Netherlands?

‘To remain a player in the world, universities will have to look beyond their own four walls. They will have to choose distinct profiles: not duplicate, but complement each other. Individual universities could, for instance, focus more visibly on specific social science disciplines, on subsidiary questions within broad societal themes, such as energy or climate, and collaborate with others on the basis of complementarity with a special emphasis on these themes. NWO can help universities and disciplines to find each other on the basis of such profiles and thus make themselves stronger in international competition. We already play that role in Gravitation. That programme, funded by direct government research funding, generates collaborations that make me proud to be part of NWO.’

NWO cannot remain on the side-lines when researchers are being asked to collaborate more on substantive themes

‘Another way is: make sure we invest in the right research infrastructure. Many disciplines need large-scale infrastructure, including for instance the social sciences that are working with increasingly sizeable databanks. NWO has resources for this, but not enough to honour every request. Choices are hugely important in strategic terms. That’s why we’re creating a permanent committee for large-scale scientific infrastructure, which will look at all these plans in the context of the broad science policy, rather than ad hoc. That is an important development.’

NWO says it considers curiosity-driven research to be important, but at the same time it is going further down the path of defining research agendas.

‘NWO cannot remain on the side-lines when researchers and their organisations are being asked to collaborate more on substantive themes. It is also our responsibility to society: society is emphatically asking us as scientists to help in understanding and responding to developments taking place in our era. It is also important in terms of creating sufficient support for science to take that request seriously.’

Over the last year, all the NWO divisions jointly identified a number of societal challenges which could serve to inspire disciplines. Obviously, you can’t order such themes by decree. But what NWO can do, more than any other Dutch organisation, is act as a national discussion platform that connects scientists. And I am convinced that the challenges that have been defined will appear in one form or another in the Dutch Science Agenda that is being drawn up this year. Of course, there’s a degree of tension between curiosity-driven science and agendas in which other people want to have a say. That tension is also reflected in the recent academic protests. That debate will always exist, and you have to be receptive to it. I say: both should be possible. Plenty of scope and freedom on the one hand, somewhat more prescriptive agendas on the other. The same is true for collaborative relationships: some scientists ought to even keep their distance in order to develop new ideas individually and explore new boundaries. That’s why NWO is preserving free competition for non-programmed research in the new strategy too.’

How does NWO’s penchant for curiosity-driven research relate to collaboration with business in the top sectors?

‘It’s true that we’re now talking to business more than we used to. When the top sector policy was announced, we said: “OK, but then we need additional resources.” That seemed better than saying “no” and losing budget. It took some time after that, but science and business have learned to draw up joint agendas in an atmosphere of openness and trust. Scientists are listening more to the needs of business; business accepts that scientists will base their research agendas on that but in their own way. It is a productive dialogue that demonstrates that science is part of the knowledge economy. And ultimately additional resources were allocated that have compensated for the drop in the NWO budget.’

Some people say that the Netherlands has gone too far in complying with the requirement that research must be able to be ‘valorised’.

‘NWO thinks that science has its own intrinsic value, but at the same time, it should not be seen as being isolated from society. That is the reason why we assess research proposals in terms of quality but where necessary also in terms of relevance and in all cases in terms of the promise about valorisation, or better: knowledge utilisation. By that we mean the process in which scientific knowledge is used outside its own discipline and also outside science. Asking about the possible societal impact isn’t an unsavoury question. It is certainly not the case that NWO only funds research that can be valorised. That’s utter nonsense.

It is certainly not the case that NWO only funds research that can be valorised. That’s utter nonsense.

The main point is that knowledge utilisation is often not the first thing researchers focus attention on when they receive funding for curiosity-driven research. NWO wants to encourage them to reflect on the possible usefulness of their research. A scientist who wants to conduct important theoretical research into the origin of gravity can certainly say: I can’t for the moment see how this knowledge can be used outside my own discipline. That’s not a problem, and every reviewer will probably endorse that. However, if these options do exist, but individual scientists refuse to think about them because they don’t interest them, then they are putting themselves at a disadvantage compared to other researchers who have submitted a proposal.' 

NWO has announced that it wants to adjust its own structure: a greater role for the Governing Board and less managerial influence for the divisions. That has led to quite a fuss among scientists.

‘Let’s start with that fuss: I think that’s a positive thing. It shows that people don’t want to lose NWO. Change makes people unsettled because you know what you have but not what you’ll get. But why have we proposed these changes? Because the scientific challenges in a Dutch Science Agenda will make it necessary for disciplines to come together. That’s difficult to do if these disciplines are managed and funded more or less separately. Not impossible, but difficult. All these disciplines remain valuable in their own right and NWO will also remain recognisable to these disciplines, but if they can be made to sit at a single table within NWO more easily, collaboration and competition beyond the boundaries of these disciplines will become easier.’

It looks as if NWO is caught in the firing line: science on one side and society on the other. Not an easy place to be.

‘NWO sees it as one of its tasks to persuade politicians to provide sufficient financial support for research. That’s why we can’t turn our back on business, for example. We have tried to turn the idea into good, modern science policy, and I think we’ve succeeded. But it’s true, NWO shouldn’t count on great popularity – even if only because, unfortunately, we have to reject eight out of ten research proposals. NWO and its managers are by definition a sort of sitting target. That’s all part of the job.’

Why would anyone actually want to be Chairman of NWO?

‘When the Minister asked me, I was naïve. I thought: I can serve my country and carry on doing some research at the same time. Less has come of the latter than I had intended. The entire NWO Governing Board wants to defend the position of science in the Netherlands. We believe profoundly that the scientific infrastructure, with the people and the freedoms associated with it, is absolutely essential for the future of this country. If you then see that cuts amounting to 50 billion euros have been imposed in the last few years, but science has been relatively spared and NWO’s budget has even increased slightly, then that is an enormous incentive. That’s what we’re doing it for.’

This article was first published in the Hypothese Magazine of April 2015.
Text: Peter Vermij

Source: NWO