Dutch Minister of Education wants to protect facts and scientists

Screenshot from the livestream provided by Leiden University

The lecture hall at Leiden University was full: it was going to be Dijkgraaf’s first public address as Minister of Education, Culture and Science, so expectations were high. The world-renowned theoretical physicist was due to speak about the increasing tension between the political and scientific communities.

Among the audience were two scientists who have recently been threatened: Belgian virologist Marc van Ranst and Meteorologist Gerrit Hiemstra. UU Virologist Marion Koopmans was also supposed to attend but had to cancel because she contracted the coronavirus.

Dijkgraaf began and ended his speech addressing the war in Ukraine, which he called a “particularly brutal invasion” and “the biggest geopolitical and humanitarian crisis on our continent since the Second World War”. He said that he felt somewhat uncomfortable talking about anything else.

He did, nevertheless. After all, the war is also about twisting facts and threatening academics. “Sadly, there is less of a difference than we believe between fooling people with propaganda and fake news and entering their city in tanks", stated the minister, who launched into a eulogy to science. For instance, he celebrated the fact that science developed a life-saving vaccine against Covid-19 in record time thanks to research initiated decades ago.

For the minister, the greatest surprise of the coronavirus crisis was “that even the fight against a pandemic, an anonymous virus that threatens the entire world, can be politicised”. Dijkgraaf then went on: “And that misinformation can spread across the globe just as fast as the virus.”

“There are people here in the hall who have received personal threats through hate mail, tribunals or worse. These threats emanate from the darkest recesses of the internet. Unfortunately, also at the heart of our democracy and at their own front door.” The minister did not mention the political party Forum voor Democratie (Forum for Democracy) by name, but it was clear to everyone that he was referring to it when he said that the heart of democracy is in the House of Representatives. The leader of Forum for Democracy, Thierry Baudet, accuses academia of "indoctrinating" students. More than a thousand scientists signed an open letter against him in 2019.

Politicians ought to be more protective of the facts and of science, Dijkgraaf argued. The minister feels that is desperately necessary because new crises are already knocking at the door, such as the climate, the nitrogen crisis, digital security, and social inequality. “The knowledge that is gleaned now and in the years ahead can make or break our national resilience. How we gather, protect and use that knowledge to cope with future crises needs to be discussed right now in political circles.”

He hopes that, ultimately, people will be more trusting of science. “I regard it as my duty, previously as a scientist and now as a minister, to help ensure that as many people as possible are able to unlock the door so that, with the help of science, they have the frame of reference they need, especially in uncertain times.”

But how? “You have probably heard me mention more questions and complex puzzles than answers”, he stated towards the end of his address. “I promise you that those answers – all those things for which I am responsible under the coalition agreement – will ultimately be given.”

Dijkgraaf was roundly applauded. To start looking for those answers, virologist Van Ranst and weatherman Hiemstra took to the stage, along with Ineke Sluiter, President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Professor of Science Communication and renowned mathematician Ionica Smeets.

Smeets admired the courage of her colleagues, who are continuing to share their insights despite all the threats. “I don’t have that courage. I received a death threat once and, since then, I have kept well away from controversial subjects.”

Van Ranst has indeed recurred to police protection in the past 18 months. Despite everything, he does not shy away from saying what he has to say. His eleven-year-old son no longer dares to open the door because of all the threats. The boy used to dream of becoming famous but now he would prefer to lead a life of anonymity.

Hiemstra, who as a climate activist also gets all kinds of abuse, laid part of the blame on politicians, who tend to shop around where science is concerned. “People aren’t stupid. If they get the idea that they are being conned, they look for the answers themselves, do their own research and create their own truth.” And then they risk getting things wrong.

The fact that scientists are receiving threats has been in the spotlight for a while now, thanks in part to Sluiter. “We have no control over the idiots that send nasty tweets from the comfort of their own home”, she said. But threatened scientists are now getting some support (“You can look up what you need to do”) and managers will hopefully come to their defence.

No air travel
But can we increase people's trust in science? Lead by example, was one of the panel’s recommendations. Having your own children vaccinated is more persuasive than a table or a graph, Van Ranst argued. Hiemstra is no longer travelling by plane, he drives an electric car, and is a vegetarian.

In addition, the members of the panel called on the ‘silent majority’ that does trust science. They think it would help if those people actually said something.

All of the panel members were well disposed towards the minister (Sluiter even said: “Keep up the good work”), but they did have some advice for him, too. Sluiter warned, for example, that it is not possible to separate science and politics entirely, as Dijkgraaf would like. After all, the government pursues a policy for science and decides how much room is given to open science.

Smeets advocated better science communication, like neighbouring countries do. She argued that the Netherlands is too dependent on “lone wolves who are fighting a losing battle”. There needs to be something more structured, in her view. 

The tone
After these considerations, the moderator asked Dijkgraaf for a response. Courteously, the minister praised the panel members for their personal commitment to science. He agrees it is a good idea for the silent majority to make their voices heard. “And behaviour has to change in politics too”, he added. “That’s where the tone is set, after all.”

Has Dijkgraaf himself ever faced threats? After the meeting, talking to journalists, he said: “There is a lot happening online but I simply don’t read most of it.”