Dijkgraaf, Clevers and Rutte, or: on how to finance fundamental research

by: in Law

The high position of Dutch universities is a small wonder in view of the ever-decreasing public funds available for fundamental research.

Today was a day of both sadness and of pride for the Dutch academic community. At an impressive event in Amsterdam Robbert Dijkgraaf said formally farewell as President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. He will leave the KNAW to become director of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In the last five years, physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf has made an enormous effort to spread enthusiasm about research among the general public, and to show the enormous value of science (including a recent one hour lecture on the big bang, broadcasted live on Dutch TV at prime time and attracting over one million viewers). As a result of this, he has become a well-known public figure in the Netherlands and a great ambassador of science. At the event Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte gave a speech in which he tried to explain the reasons for the success of Dutch universities in international rankings (although not one Dutch university ranks in the top ten worldwide, all twelve rank in the top 200). Apart from the international and open society the Netherlands would form, Rutte explained this high overall ranking by referring to the mechanisms in place to divide money on basis of quality (through NWO) and to the extensive cooperation among universities and industry. Interestingly, both Dijkgraaf and new KNAW President Hans Clevers (biologist and physician) emphasised in their speeches that the high position of Dutch universities is a small wonder in view of the ever-decreasing public funds available for fundamental research. Although no one would deny that ‘valorisation’ of certain types of research is important, they both emphasised that there may be a bleak future for Dutch academia if not more funds are made available for fundamental work – as Germany, Sweden and Finland have been doing in the last few years. This plea must be taken very seriously. Also Dutch law faculties are increasingly dependent on outside funding, leading to a tendency to do more ‘applied’ research and leave fundamental questions – for which money is often more difficult to find – aside. But this does not only mean that universities should lobby the Ministry of Education and funding organisations. It also means that individual law schools should develop a clearer vision of where they want to be in five or ten years time. They will need to develop new ‘business models’ of financing research and teaching based on clear choices about the things they want to achieve. In my view, this discussion should be at the centre of attention in Dutch law faculties.