Absorbing the shock of the new government’s plans

Interview with the KNAW President: 'Hopefully the rough edges can be smoothed off'

Marileen Dogterom
Marileen Dogterom. Photo: KNAW / Inge Hoogland

Deep cuts to the education budget, fewer English-taught programmes, fewer foreign students and researchers... In her annual address, given last week, KNAW president Marileen Dogterom expressed “grave concerns” about the plans unveiled by the new government in its coalition agreement. 

“We’ll have to wait and see what the exact impact will be once these plans are implemented”, Dogterom observes. “But, by the look of things, nurturing the open and international nature of our science system is not high on their agenda.”

Wait and see. That sounds very calm.
“The shock waves have definitely been felt throughout education and research. That’s been triggered by the severe budget cuts, but funding aside, what do these plans say about how much this coalition values knowledge and innovation? What about long-term investments? We’ll have to wait and see what happens once we start having those conversations.”

Is conversation going to change anything?
“With most parties, you can agree that we need knowledge and talent to face major challenges in technology and society. In those areas, we don’t want to depend on other European countries and certainly not the rest of the world. We need to maintain the strength we have built up in education and research.” 

The new government doesn’t seem too keen on that international outlook.
“There are other arguments too. Three years ago, calculations showed that science was underfunded, giving rise to problems such as heavy workloads and social safety issues. The investments made by the previous government were partly designed to address this. In that context, it’s quite a shock to see everything reversed, or at least half of it. We’ll have to see if that will actually go ahead, but these first signals have come as a shock to us.”

Are they just signals, though? It’s written there in black and white, isn’t it?
“In my view, it’s not yet clear how much freedom the minister will have when it comes to filling in those financial paragraphs. Perhaps whoever holds that position will have some leeway to make cuts in other ways. I’m only speculating, but who knows? Perhaps there will be more freedom on certain issues and the new minister will have the option of seeking alternative majorities in the House of Representatives. That would leave room for the ideas of opposition parties.”

As things stand, the coalition agreement includes an annual cut of 215 million euros in the sector plans jointly agreed by universities to determine the direction of education and research.
“Yes, and scrapping that budget would be a very bad idea. That was a structural investment. Other funds are open to discussion, they were due to expire anyway. But not the sector plans. They enabled us to employ 1,200 members of staff permanently. Hopefully, the rough edges will be smoothed off, but if you take the numbers literally, are we honestly supposed to fire those 1,200 people?”

So, it’s a matter of waiting for the new minister to be appointed and hoping they will listen?
“We can open the conversation with politicians right now. Remind them about the purpose behind the Fund for Research and Science, which is due to be axed to save one billion euros. That fund didn’t just appear out of nowhere. We can explain these things, and then it’s up to the House or the government to make their choices. The same is true of the sector plans, which were the result of considerable political pressure. Those plans are also geared towards safeguarding Dutch-taught education programmes. Don’t they want that after all?”

It’s worth asking whether a reasonable conversation will help when these parties seem so determined to cut back on internationalisation.
“We understand the concerns that the Dutch system will not cope with internationalisation. There needs to be enough housing for everyone, which is a real issue in some cities. Universities were not in a position to cap student numbers in tracks taught in other languages, so it makes sense to give them more control and require them to handle that responsibly. At the same time, the quality of Dutch research is demonstrably linked to openness and the exchange of talent. You don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

You could argue that these parties want to weaken the position of knowledge and science. That makes for a tough conversation.
“I don't think that’s what they’re after. Above all, they want less migration and the influx of students and researchers is part of that.”

But when you hear PVV talk about climate change or BBB talk about nitrogen, and then add up the harsh austerity measures and the tax increase on books, you can surely conclude that they are against knowledge and science...
“It’s going too far to say that the entire coalition is opposed to science. Sometimes parties are not interested in knowledge because they think they already know how things work, but that’s another thing entirely.”

Geert Wilders recently spoke at a political conference in Hungary, a country where academic freedom has taken hard knocks. Viktor Orbán is one of his heroes. Aren’t you afraid that the Netherlands is heading down the same path as Hungary?
“Far more things would need to happen for that to be true. What’s happening in Hungary is not just about science, but rather about he whole society lacking certain freedoms. It is also about the rule of law and journalism. We have to be vigilant about these things, but right now that’s not at stake. It would be a different story if our government were to tell universities what topics they should or should not conduct, for example, or who should be given a professorship as this touches on the issue of academic autonomy.”

You hope to convince politicians with arguments, but have you ever considered the academic equivalent of blockading Parliament Square with tractors?
“I recently appeared on a radio show to discuss climate policy with a lecturer from VU Amsterdam, who made the switch from science to the environmental movement. Their argument was: 'I can write endless articles concluding that we need to reduce CO2 emissions, but those articles end up in someone’s desk drawer. So, I have to find another way to get that message across.' As an individual, I can sympathise with that position, but I am president of the KNAW. Science cannot become activism as that would pave the way for people to accuse us of bias. At the end of the day, I trust that a significant proportion of the general public is interested in knowledge.”

HOP, Bas Belleman