24 February 2021

Reaching for the stars

He is a free spirit. “As a child I was always wandering around outside, building huts, counting stars.” He is self-deprecating: “I was interviewed for my PhD by a committee of old white men, a bit like myself now,” but also self-aware: “I consciously moved away from fundamental mathematics after my PhD.” As a leader, his main goal is to serve others. “You don’t shake hands with an institute, but with the people who work there. First and foremost I want to look at what everybody needs.” Bartel Van de Walle has been director of UNU-MERIT since September 2020.

vd walle

Turning point: 9/11

He was still keen to go abroad, and in 2000 he moved to the New Jersey Institute of Technology in the US, where he had previously spent 10 months working with a grant. His then wife and two young children joined him. The research revolved around group decisions and was relatively theoretical in nature. After the attacks on the Twin Towers, Van de Walle realised he “wanted to do something in the real world.” “Maths is not the real world, no,” he laughs. “It’s different. In maths you make a lot of abstractions: you build your model on the basis of assumptions that are often very fundamental. Practice is always much more complex.”

vd walle

He began studying how people make decisions under pressure. Why were the police officers in the collapsing Twin Towers warned to evacuate on time, while the firefighters were not, resulting in many casualties? “I investigated what went wrong in terms of communication. That shows you where mistakes were made, but I think it’s important to emphasise that human error often occurs when there’s something wrong with the system. Sometimes it’s too easy to blame a person. I believe in analysing the system and finding the weaknesses that give rise to mistakes.”

Return to Europe

Another lesson he learnt in the US: “to think big and reach for the stars.” “With the ‘pursuit of happiness’ inscribed in the constitution, people more readily dare to dream and to follow those dreams. If something is a good idea, Americans focus on how to make it happen—not all the things that could go wrong.” Still, the family was keen to return to Europe, especially when the mood shifted after 9/11. “I had the choice between Ghent or Tilburg. I already knew Ghent, so Tilburg it was.”

His research developed in the direction of humanitarian aid. How can the available information be put to more effective use? “I also did fieldwork in places like the Congo and the Gaza Strip. I slept in very basic places, flew in small, rickety planes. A wonderful period, which was over before I knew it.”

Best of both worlds

vd walle

He had been a professor in Delft for five years, heading the Department of Multi-Actor Systems with some 130 employees, when he learnt of the vacancy at UNU-MERIT in Maastricht. His main consideration was the fact that it involved becoming a UN diplomat. “It means I’ve officially left the academic world. I still have an honorary appointment at UM, but doing my own research will be a challenge. I’ve made my peace with that, I no longer have to land big publications for myself personally. In this position I can really make a difference and contribute to the UN agenda. I think it’s the best of both worlds. I want to help create the best conditions for our academics, with recognition of all types of activities, from teaching and impact to publications.”

He is very concerned about the developments in the academic world in recent decades. “The term ‘excellence’ is very limited these days. What’s excellent about a Nature publication that changes nothing in the real world? We’re driving ourselves crazy, not least with the competition for research funding. It’s at the expense of research time, at the expense of those academics who run into a wall, and at the expense of free research that doesn’t yet have a practical application. Fortunately, it’s increasingly up for debate.”

Climbing the academic ladder

If he had to start his academic career over—like his eldest son, who recently started his PhD—he is unsure whether he would make the same choice. “I don’t envy young people in academia, with the hyper-competitive system of applying for grants at the same time as starting a family. In hindsight, I sacrificed a lot for my career. I missed a lot of my first three children’s younger years. I’m trying more consciously to make time for my youngest, who’s now four.”

At Harvard, where he worked as a senior scholar for six months before moving to Delft, money was never an issue for researchers. “I had a great time there, for that and other reasons. At the same time, I’m annoyed by the glorification of the top universities. They’re just not comparable to others. In Europe, we need to profile ourselves differently; for example, by giving opportunities to students from less wealthy countries. I see that as an obligation of this institute.” The idea behind UNU-MERIT’s PhD programme is that alumni put their knowledge to good use in their home countries afterwards. “But often they’d prefer to stay here, and so far we don’t really have a good answer for that. I’d like to explore the possibility of supporting PhD candidates in their home countries.”

Bitterballen

Van de Walle himself never felt the urge to return to Belgium. “I like the Dutch academic system. Undoubtedly things are different now, but when I left Belgium 30 years ago it was a very closed system, with a lot of favouritism. Narrow-minded, even. I like the Dutch directness. The Dutch are fairly self-aware, but also open and warm, if you ask me. It’s only the food that I’ll never get used to, although maybe it’s better in this region. Those bitterballen—my god, guys … ”

In Europe, we need to profile ourselves differently; for example, by giving opportunities to students from less wealthy countries. I see that as an obligation of this institute.
By: Femke Kools (text) Paul van der Veer (photography)