Robbert Dijkgraaf: ‘Everyone should have the space to go their own way’

Robbert Dijkgraaf hit the ground running as minister by injecting billions of euros into science. With an emphasis on ‘calm and space’, he chose to distribute funds broadly under what he calls a ‘general policy’. Although the broad categories have been defined, there’s still plenty of room for fine-tuning. ‘The ball is in play now.’

Text: Joop Daggers & Belinda van der Gaag, Images: Lynne Brouwer. 

He described a previous cabinet’s zero-sum approach to empowering researchers working in the humanities over those working in the hard sciences as ‘downright naïve’, and, he said, the result of a ‘totally unsustainable and short-sighted policy.’ In his view, NWO’s shift from disciplines to domains is threatening to ‘assassinate Dutch science’. And as for the typical carousel of meetings, they’re essentially ‘an endless source of frustration and a drain on energy’.

‘The house of science is still very compartmentalised, I’d like to see it a little more open.

Robbert Dijkgraaf

For years, as a columnist, Robbert Dijkgraaf didn’t hold back his criticism of Dutch science policy. Confront Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf today with his statements from the past, and he will reply with his characteristically generous laugh. ‘I still sometimes think of a colleague of mine in mathematics, John Conway. Whenever he found himself in a complicated situation, he would ask himself: what would John Conway make of this? Now I sometimes ask myself: what would Robbert Dijkgraaf make of this?’

And what did he make of it?

‘I think it’s great that so soon after this Cabinet took office, we were able to put together a package that offered ‘everyone the space to go their own way’. This will allow us to distribute funds broadly in education and research, which will allow us to move forward for a while. It’s a ten-year fund, which you could say is semi-structural. Ten years is a long time in politics. This means we can be sure that everything we accomplish isn’t turned on its head every year. I know from experience that nothing is more disruptive to research than turmoil and funding shortages.’

That’s why this commitment to ‘calm and space’ has become a mission for Dijkgraaf. To create a stable foundation with financial and political flows that we can rely on. A general, broad package of measures aimed at the entire scientific community should make this possible, using tried and tested instruments such as
sectoral plans, scientific infrastructure and open competition at NWO. In addition, he emphasises the next generation, ‘as they’re the ones who are really losing out’. The system was straining under the pressure, and the prospects of tenure were poor for young researchers. They seemed to be eternally stuck in postdoctoral positions or temporary teaching jobs.’  The policy should create more permanent jobs in the short term, with start-up grants to ensure immediate research budgets.

Not only does the extra funding bring joy, but it also heralds the start of inevitable wrangling. How will the grants really be distributed?

‘Our ministry developed the general idea of start-up and incentive grants, but when it comes to the details, the ball is in play.’

Dijkgraaf calls it a privilege to have been able to make big investments right after the Cabinet was set up. ‘But anyone who reads the newspapers knows that financially difficult times are approaching. When we developed the plans, it looked like we were putting up a tent just as a storm was brewing. That’s why we wanted to adopt the policy and transfer the money quickly so that it wouldn’t become a political football.’

You’re basically telling the field: this is it, don’t come back for more.

‘We have to make do with this for now, yes. I sometimes say, jokingly, “I’m fed up with you all!” I almost mean that literally. NWO, the universities, the scientific institutions – they have the money. So when somebody comes to me for more money, I say: “Listen, we just transferred almost a billion euros a year. That gives you plenty of room to develop new initiatives. Be creative, make decisions.’

As a scientist in politics, Dijkgraaf has no choice but to be creative. The brilliant physicist, who went to the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in between graduating and taking his PhD because physics didn’t challenge him enough, now works in Fortress The Hague.

And if those are choices that you don't like?

'I will have to make peace with those. I have every confidence in the professional culture, am proud of how the scientific world organizes itself. Almost everyone who plays a role there has personally experienced what it means to do research and to teach.'

'And, of course, we chose this broad portfolio approach for a reason. We want to show that it is and-and. Science can embrace the full breadth, really connect with society and at the same time provide space for people to be totally absorbed in a subject.

Does competition still fit into the system of the future?

'Competition or collaboration: again, it's not a question of either-or. I see it as a kind of a funny combination of both, and that's how science has always worked. You always try to be the first, to do something that hasn't been done before. But ultimately you also have to do it together; the best you can offer a good researcher is an environment with good colleagues. So that means the ivory tower is also allowed to be there. The beauty of a tower is that you can lock yourself up in it, in isolation, but also that you can see things coming from afar. And of course, as a tower keeper, you also need that market square, where you can talk to people, sell your goods. We need to pick up both those roles as a scientific world.'

All these investments also create obligations. What will we see from it in ten years' time?

'Then this will turn out to have been a period of great innovation in Dutch science, in which many young people entered the system. Talented scientists, who were also given the freedom to take some unexpected turns from creativity. I spoke to a young researcher who received a start-up grant. His dean had said: you can apply for a scholarship, and you are your own selection committee. That you get to decide what to spend it on and don't have to jump through all kinds of hoops: for a scientist, that is the greatest gift you can get. I experienced this myself with my Spinoza grant. Scientists are self-powered. You don't have to pull on that at all, there is an enormous power in them and we have to ignite it.'

And how does that help society?

'In the form of science's contribution to great new applications. Solutions to big social problems, our economic and innovation strength. But also in education: everything everyone learns must have been thought of somewhere first. In addition, I hope that if there is suddenly an unexpected development, such as a virus, it turns out that we have been researching it for years and have expertise in it. And don't forget the inspired researchers who write beautiful books or give lectures to take people along on the great adventure.'

From which study are you currently benefiting the most?

‘I always say that I really learned to be a researcher at Rietveld. You’re not judged on the product there but on the process, so there’s the constant challenge of breaking new ground. At the end of the week you have to hand in a series of sketches. These sketches aren’t right or wrong – what matters is how you got there. It’s the inquisitive mindset that counts. This is the lesson that’s stayed with me the most. What could I have done differently, which turn did I not take?’

What picture would emerge if you were to unleash this inquisitive mindset on politics?

‘As a researcher, you do an experiment and the results sometimes tell a completely different story than you expected. I’m in the middle of such an experiment myself. I’m my own lab mouse. And then, as always, things turn out to be a lot more complicated than you think. I used to say: in physics, you press a button here, you see a line appear and a light go on over there. In politics, you press a button here, you hear nothing for a long time and then an alarm goes off somewhere. And nobody seems to know exactly how it happened. But there’s more structure than I could see from the outside, with all kinds of checks and balances. Yes, processes are slow, but that’s a good thing. Decisions often affect a lot of people. You have to take that into account.’

Are you able to live up to your potential in this world?

‘It’s exciting. When a law passes after a vote in the Senate, you do feel as if you’ve helped to accomplish something. It feels important that it involves a field that I’m so passionate about. In that sense, it doesn’t feel like I’m in a completely different life. I’m still part of the same community, just in a different role. Instead of being on the pitch and playing, I’m now on the sidelines shouting. But that’s a role too. Someone has to be minister.’

Robbert Dijkgraaf, minister van OCW

I sometimes wonder, what would Robbert Dijkgraaf make of this?

Robbert Dijkgraaf

Surely it goes beyond shouting from the sidelines?

‘Yes, the coach ultimately decides who goes on the pitch and what task they need to fulfil. But not the result of the match. There are really two big things you can do as a minister. You take concrete measures, you spend billions, you make laws. But you also convey an image that indicates what you’re going to do. You have a platform on which you can help to sway the way people think.’

The workload is a major concern in the field. How do you experience this in politics?

‘Oh, it’s not really that different. One of the best experiences I had as a young researcher was when I was totally overwhelmed and felt this sensation: wow, I’m working on an important issue and I can completely immerse myself in it. Calm and space doesn’t mean that researchers should just sit back and kick up their feet, it means they should be able to push themselves to the limit on something that really matters to them. And to be honest, that’s how I feel right now. I’m not going to start advocating for calm and space for ministers here. I sometimes say that in my role I should be in the least comfortable position.’ Feeling all the forces around me, checking what is needed. And then, as a politician, you have to have a compass needle inside somewhere that indicates roughly which way you want to go. But I can't specify further, because if you do, the needle breaks. That's how I see my role and that's just what it is for now.'

You just mentioned that as a minister you convey a certain image. What vision of the future is that?

‘The house of science is still very compartmentalised, with a few lowered ceilings and some internal walls. I’d like to see it a little more open. I expect that in the future the science domains will be much more entwined. And that people will take more of a meandering path through their careers and make more choices, both inside and outside of science. There should be room for everyone to go their own way. It’s not a question of whether you fit into the system, but whether the system knows how to make room for you. That’s why I always stress that this inquisitive attitude is also important in secondary and higher vocational education, where large groups of young people are trained. They’re just as valuable to our society. When we talk about research, I don’t see opportunity as something that’s at the top of a ladder but more as something that’s spread out, like a fan.’

But we’re not there yet.

‘Science has always been something for a small number of people in a privileged environment. A nice-to-have for society. But now science and technology are increasingly part of the lifeblood of society. It’s in everything we do and are, and so it’s becoming something that belongs to all of us. In the past, you either were or were not a scientist. Now science is much more a part of the whole of society.’

Which means society has to trust science.

‘That’s where the greatest tension is right now. On the one hand, science is in everything we do. We have vaccines in our bodies, we’re digitally connected, we panic when the Wi-Fi goes down or we lose our phones. That’s the paradox of knowledge: we need this scientific knowledge more and more, but it's becoming increasingly specialised. It’s becoming harder every day to understand exactly what’s happening, and fewer people are understanding it. But the good thing is that this is a great force for progress. It’s up to science itself to do everything it can to make this work well in society, so people can embrace progress and we can bridge that gap.’

For the time being, the gap seems to be widening, if anything.

‘I’m not sure if that’s the case. You can see it getting bigger and smaller. In general, trust in institutions is declining, but trust in science is comparatively high. Everyone is having to deal with this problem. People have opinions about it, we have public debates about vaccines, about AI, we think about these issues. People are also aware that science can do a lot of good. At the same time, there are tensions in the relationship between society and science. How do you maintain a good relationship when things are moving so quickly on both sides? Can society absorb all of science’s benefits? What can we do to strengthen this absorptive capacity? Precisely because science is increasingly influencing our lives, it’s important that society can say something back and ask legitimate questions: “Dear scientists, which direction are you pushing society in? And can we perhaps push back a little?”

And is science receptive to that?

‘The signals I’m getting suggest that we need to open up, engage in all possible kinds of dialogue. That fits in well with Dutch culture. We’re a world leader in that respect, and I want to encourage that. Everything leads me to believe that science in this country has not turned its back on society but rather is facing it.’

The first grant defines your career

Does Robbert Dijkgraaf remember his first grant? You bet. ‘To be honest, it wasn’t me but my supervisor Gerard 't Hooft who secured that grant. It’s not something he did very often, so he wasn’t very experienced at it. It was quite special that he got it, although given his stature you expected him to do well. But I was particularly happy with the result because it allowed me to do a PhD. At the time, there was a strong feeling that if an opportunity like this doesn’t come your way, then you’re finished. I might have done something else and not had a career in science at all. For young people, it’s often all or nothing at the beginning. And it’s hard to gauge what we’re missing out on because of those that don’t make it.’

In 2003, 14 years after his getting his PhD, Dijkgraaf was awarded the Spinoza Prize. His supervisor, Gerard 't Hooft, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1999, had already received the same award in 1995. This made Dijkgraaf the first Spinoza laureate to have a Spinoza laureate as his supervisor.