No competition this time

NWO pulls out 20 million to spur climate research

Windmolens, foto Pixabay
Foto Pixabay

Normally, things roughly work like this at the Dutch Research Council (NWO): scientists write proposals, reviewers scrutinise them, most of them end up in the waste bin and about one in seven proposals is ultimately funded. 

This month, however, saw the launch of the Netherlands Climate Research Initiative (KIN), which aims to use knowledge and innovation to help the country become climate-neutral and sustainable. This new NWO unit is turning over a new leaf. 

The KIN intends to first investigate what knowledge is lacking, for instance at municipalities, companies, ministries and other stakeholders. The subsequent research will then target this knowledge gap, says KIN chair Gerard van der Steenhoven, who is a professor at the University of Twente and until recently held the position of director general at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI). 

Why doesn’t your method involve a competition in which the best proposal wins, like with the rest of NWO?
“Our goal is inherently different. We’re not necessarily looking for the best research, as Dutch science operates at a very high level anyway. The research we support should first and foremost contribute to accelerating the ‘system transition’ to a climate-neutral and climate-resilient society. That’s our point of departure. This requires special knowledge, but also knowledge of the entire system.”

And NWO’s usual approach isn’t suitable for this?
“I wouldn’t want to take anything away from that approach, because Dutch science has become super strong thanks to all the competition. But if all that counts is scientific quality, the research that would actually contribute most to the transitions doesn’t always come out on top. Besides, we’re in a hurry. Climate change won’t wait, we really have to get to work. One of the limitations of the regular system is that so many researchers spend time on research proposals that don’t get funded in the end, and we don’t want to waste that time.”

So how will you go about things?|
“Before we put anything in writing, we talk to all kinds of stakeholders, for example policy officers at the municipality, people at companies, civil servants at ministries, employees of NGOs, etcetera. We look at what knowledge they require. Sometimes that knowledge is already there, but it simply needs to be adapted to the situation in, say, the municipality of Gorinchem. That may only take four weeks. Other knowledge questions may require us to hire a postdoctoral researcher.”

But in the end you’re giving out 20 million euros. That kind of money attracts people.
“We keep telling people: don’t do this for the money, because it may well be that your input solely consists of contributing a few ideas. Don’t see this as an essential item on your department’s budget, because that’s exactly what we’re trying to distance ourselves from. We want to bring people together that really want to bring about changes. Together we’ll look at where the biggest bottlenecks are and then we’ll pull out our cheque book for the corresponding research.

As it happens, a climate-sceptical party just won big in the elections. Do you expect this to have an effect?
“Yes, possibly. We’ll have to wait and see. Let’s be honest, the KIN team didn’t open a bottle of champagne once the election results were in. I’m sure you understand. A lot of people involved in education, science and climate were hoping for a different outcome; no need to beat around the bush in that respect. But all in all, there’s still a sizeable majority in the House of Representatives that would like to continue the Rutte IV cabinet’s current climate policy. Which would be great, because Rob Jetten and Robbert Dijkgraaf really did good work in this area. It’s just the biggest party that wants to go another way, unfortunately.”

You want to work together with all kinds of stakeholders. Will the fossil industry also get a seat at the table?
“We don’t have an official position on this, but we have an open attitude. Of course we don’t want to be used for greenwashing, but business is definitely welcome. We’re mainly focusing on the public, non-commercial sector, but I’m sure many companies are interested as well.”

Several universities have been occupied by activists demanding to cut the ties with the fossil industry. 
“I’m understanding of action groups making these kinds of demands, given the role they have in the whole debate, but that’s not our role. We don’t want to be an action group, but a group that helps bring together people who are willing to contribute, who for instance want to know: how can we do this in our municipality? And yes, an open attitude is of course difficult to maintain when such a company knocks on our door and perhaps we’ll have to tell them no. But we don’t want to do that before they’ve even approached us.”

The very first project is about ‘transition in urban areas through the lens of justice’. What kind of justice would that be?
“That question hits the nail on the head, because we don’t know exactly. And that’s precisely the point. When you’re thinking about the climate crisis, you have to acknowledge that the largest emission of greenhouse gases was caused by the Western countries and that there is a substantial prosperity gap between the Western world and the Global South. But the call for justice also relates to a smaller scale. If you want to bring about change in a municipality, you’ll have to make sure it’s not at the expense of people with a low income who can hardly pay their rent. Although that’s seen as a general truth, you’re still a step away from practice. We want to facilitate that step.”

Could you imagine this approach being applied to other areas?
“When you’re giving out money for fundamental research, I can fully understand you want to stick with the old system. That being said, we’re going to do things differently and let’s see what that brings us. I’m sure there will be a few bumps in the road. There always are. But we’ll learn from those.”