2 June 2021

‘Science does a better job explaining achievements’

Ron Heeren moved a complete research group from Amsterdam to Maastricht University in 2014 to set up a new institute: M4I, fully focused on the imaging of cells using mass spectrometry. After seven years of pioneering and building, the professor has developed an impressive track record that has been rewarded with membership in the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). This is a great honor for scientists, but for this native of Tilburg, it also serves as an incentive to push the boundaries even further.

Ron Heeren

It goes without saying that Ron Heeren is proud of being selected as a member of the KNAW. He will be officially installed as a member in September, joining a select group of some 600 Dutch scientists whose task it is to encourage science in all its facets. One of these tasks is acting as an advisory body to the government and other authorities. “The great thing,” says Ron Heeren, “is that I have not been appointed by a committee or an authority, but by other scientists within the KNAW. These are colleagues from various disciplines who review my work and efforts for the community and apparently are happy to see me as a participant in the debate. It’s one of the highest forms of recognition.”

Community and connections

Is that a bit of doubt we hear? After all, the KNAW also has a somewhat aloof image, an elite club that doesn’t often go public. It is an organization that is somewhat removed from society, and that is the part that doesn’t really suit Ron Heeren. “This last part is true,” the scientist tells me from his pied-à-terre in Maastricht where he spends most of the week with his wife. “I came to Maastricht in 2014 for the very reason that I want to expand the connections between science and the community. In Amsterdam, the focus was on fundamental research; here, we concentrate more on translating the research to concrete applications. We do this at our institute by combining fundamental and applied research. At M4I, researchers, students, doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs and government all work together on innovations that benefit society. Yes, I am a great proponent of transparency and the translation of knowledge to concrete applications. Society is paying for our work, so we believe we are accountable to them, and don’t want to lock ourselves away in the infamous ivory tower.”

Better explanations

You mean like the KNAW, a respectable society founded in 1808 and where only the best scientists are made members for life? “I don’t believe this image is accurate. I know that the KNAW frequently sits down at the table with numerous government agencies and institutes, manages its own subsidy programs, awards scientific prizes and, above all, exchanges a great deal of information. It is also active internationally, and this is important. We need a group like this; science helps society get ahead, it’s as simple as that. Without curious scientists, there wouldn’t be any cars, antibiotics, telephones, Internet or Covid vaccines. It’s necessary to continue to draw attention to this and to monitor it. I am aware that various groups of people are unfairly trying to arouse suspicion when it comes to science, and don’t see the point of it. This even includes some politicians. While this is a shame, perhaps it can also be a challenge for the KNAW to tackle: let us offer a better explanation of what we do and what we are achieving. And to do so in understandable language and with patience.”

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Wetenschap helpt de maatschappij vooruit, zo simpel is het. Zonder nieuwsgierige wetenschappers geen auto’s, geen antibiotica, geen telefoon, geen internet en geen Covid-vaccin. Het blijft nodig om dat onder de aandacht te brengen en te bewaken.