09 Jun
15:30 - 17:00

What is Science?

Wat is wetenschap? / What is science?

Farewell lecture Prof.dr.ir. Marjolein B.A. van Asselt (Chair in Risk Governance)

“What is science?” is the key question that provides the corner stone of science and technology studies (STS), the field that I have increasingly considered my academic home. Being a student of STS, which I got by accident as I considered computer science not being too concerned with the societal issues that motivated my interest in studying, I had terrible difficulties understanding and accepting the social constructivist premises. I was intrigued, but it took quite some time to realize that the radical line of thought does not preempt my ambition to improve society through knowledge. It actually teaches how important it is to be humble and transparent as a knowledge broker. It helps to avoid the pitfalls of becoming a complacent wiseacre. It has guided me in investigations and research projects with a broad societal outreach to insist on uncertainty tolerance, a falsification ambition and triangulation as research principle. Never with the pretention to generate truths but with the ambition to construct sensible and serviceable knowledge that enable responsible acting in a complex world.

However mindboggling in the beginning, the constructivist thesis has given me a rich perspective on science, research, investigation and knowledge for policy. In my farewell lecture, I would like to advance the idea that science is what is called science by society. I will argue that from that perspective the university is just one of the potential homes for those who consider themselves professional scientists. I will also argue that it is necessary for universities to be a node in that network called science, which also requires reaching out to the national societies they are part of, next to being a global community. Based on my experience both within the university and in other nodes and threads of that science network, I will provide some suggestions on how to travel and act in the dynamic interplay in which knowledge for society is both constructed and used.

With over 25 years of a cherished relationship with the university of Maastricht, of which 15 years as a professor, it is time to pass the toga to the next generation. Dropping the title doesn’t change my intrinsic scholarship. It is only means permanently moving to other parts of the science network without holding on to a formal tie with a university. So it is not a farewell, but an invitation to connect in different ways while being convinced that we will manage to do so.  

Note: The lecture will be in Dutch, but assistance will be provided as to enable non-native speakers to join.


Marjolein van Asselt studied computer science and philosophy of science, technology and society at Twente University. She worked at the Dutch RIVM and the Swiss EAWAG, both publicly financed research institutes, before she started at Maastricht University. She co-founded the International Centre of Integrative Studies (ICIS) and finished her interdisciplinary PhD on uncertainty and future studies in 2000. She got a Vernieuwingsimpuls grant from the Dutch Science Foundation (NWO), while she also started her career as a public academic, with joining the Council for Spatial, Environmental and Nature research (RMNO). In the meanwhile, she had moved from the Faculty of General Sciences to the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, which emphasizes her interdisciplinary profile. She was selected for The Young Academy of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences (KNAW), where she was member of the first board, and was awarded a professorship in 2007. As a scholar, she published numerous books and book chapters and wide range of articles in a diverse set of journals next to popular-scientific publications. Her main topics involved uncertainty, risk governance, future studies and the role of experts in controversies. She has been visiting scholar at Oxford University (with Steve Woolgar) and at King’s College London (with Ragnar Löfstedt). However, instead of advancing a pure academic career, she was invited to join the prestigious Scientific Council of Government Policy (WRR) as youngest member ever. As council member of the WRR, she was involved in research-based advices for the Dutch government on topics as broad and relevant as education, development aid, foreign policy and digitalization of government. In 2013, she was invited as board member for the Dutch Safety Board, the accident investigation authority, where she was responsible for a wide range of investigations, such as those into the downing of flight MH17, the container disaster in the Wadden Sea, car technology and the tragic accident with children dying in an accident with a new type of transport vehicle. Since 2021, she is de director of the Rekenkamer Rotterdam, the independent interdisciplinary institute that carries out policy research to assist the City council. Recent reports involve housing policy, youth work, collaboration between municipalities on economic policy and the use of algorithms.