Hans Clevers was the face of a promotional campaign at the Utrecht Science Park in 2017. Photo: Hans van Leeuwen

Outgoing Clevers sharpens discussions about Dutch scientific environment

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A top scientist leaving the Netherlands because he feels restrained by the stifling rules and regulations – that is how the media describe Hans Clevers’ move to pharmaceutical company Roche. “Me, leaving out of discontent? That’s a bridge too far”, reacts the professor. “But we’re selling ourselves short in the Netherlands.”

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The failure to start a biomedical company in Utrecht was an important reason for Hans Clevers to leave the country, writes Duch newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad (best known as FD) about Clevers’ departure for the Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche. Starting in March, Clevers will lead Roche’s research department, which has 2,600 employees and a budget of 1.6 billion euros.

All the articles and social media posts about the restrictions allegedly felt by enterprising scientists have led to indignant reactions. Royal prince Constantijn van Oranje, who has been committed to improving the entrepreneurial climate for years, expressed his disapproval on LinkedIn, while two members of Parliament have submitted questions to the cabinet about the situation.

After manifesting his resistance to the new evaluation criteria for researchers, also known as 'Recognition & Awards', Clevers caused the second uproar in the scientific community in a week.

When asked, Clevers refrains from saying anything about the biomedical company he was working on, or its failure to launch. “It’s a difficult thing, that was not directly caused by the regulations. All board members know that, but you won’t hear them speak about it either.”

He says his departure from the Netherlands is not directly linked to his dissatisfaction with the strict rules and regulations. If that was the case, he would have gone in a different direction long ago. He does admit, however, that he would like to create his own drug by the end of his career. “Something tangible that I can show my mother”.

After his dream dissipated in Utrecht, the new opportunity in Basel arose coincidentally. As a board member of the company, he helped to design the position until the other board members let him know that they wanted him to lead the research department.

Defensive universities
Clevers thinks it’s “good” that the newspaper coverage has led people to pay more attention to the Netherlands' failure to adequately use the excellent biomedical knowledge it has. Since then, Clevers has given several other newspaper interviews.

He says he understands the fear that commercial ventures will run off with publicly or charitably funded research, but, in his view, universities tend to respond way too defensively whenever researchers propose to start a company. He supposes that the institutions fear that their reputations will be damaged and entrepreneurship is going to lead to inequality in the workplace. “Besides, a company not yet started is missed by no one.”

According to Clevers, enterprising academics are confronted with a maze of restrictions. For instance, they are forced to choose between their tenure or the company within two years. Additionally, they are only allowed to own a very small amount of the shares.

For scientists, starting a company is not about making money, remarks Clevers. “But investors often think it’s problematic when the person who is the most important for the company has very little actual say.”

According to him, each university judges this type of situation on a case by case basis, which is frustrating for enterprising academics. That's why he is in favour of a national policy. “Why won’t universities have transparent rules for this? They are not only selling themselves short, but the Dutch economy too. Our knowledge is great, we just do too little with it.”

Never did anything for the industry
The professor has now made the switch to what the Dutch derisively call big pharma. He understands the amazement the news has caused. Clevers says he has gotten to know Roche as a family business with a long-term view. “So, without the sharp edges and fixation on quartile sales figures.”

The reactions of his scientific colleagues, including the Dutch, have been remarkably positive. “When I posted about my departure on Twitter, I got thousands of likes from international colleagues, and the followers who responded have told me the switch is a good thing, almost without exception.”

Only a comment from the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences, where Clevers used to be the director, rubbed him the wrong way a little. Director Ineke Sluiter not only explained why a separation between science and commerce was necessary but also appeared to say that she was glad her predecessor Clevers had finally made a decision between the two.

“I’ve never done any research for the industry, or have been financed by the industry. It’s difficult to find someone more academic than me. But I don’t think Ineke meant it that way.”

Still a university professor
Clevers is also happy he can still be connected to the Hubrecht Institute and the Máxima Centre as an advisor and guest researcher. After all, he would like to help his 30-odd PhD students and postdocs finish their work and he hopes to return to his lab in a few years. “If none of that was possible I would probably not have moved to Roche.”

In addition, he will still remain a university professor, albeit an unenumerated one instead of one with a one-day-a-week tenure. Discussions about how he will fulfil his new role and how conflicts of interest can be avoided are still ongoing. “I’ll still give lectures, in any case.”

Grinning, he says: “I will also remain vocal about what I think of the research policies in Utrecht and the Netherlands. Luckily, the rector told me he thinks that is an important duty for university professors.”

In a response, UU's Executive Board declared itself aware of the criticism concerning the restrictions for enterprising academics in the Netherlands. Discussions about the topic in the academic world are continuous and ongoing.

The universities regard "valorisation and impact" as one of their core tasks and try to “give as much space as possible to entrepreneurial pursuits within the societal preconditions and legislature for publicly funded institutions” through their Knowledge Transfer Offices.

According to the Executive Board, UU is continuously looking for ways to better help startups grow. “We are still learning in that area.”

In addition, the board is glad that Hans Clevers wants to keep contributing “with his knowledge and skills” to maintaining the scientific excellence of the life sciences in the Netherlands and Utrecht, more specifically.

In the new few weeks, the university is going to make agreements with Clevers regarding how exactly he is going to do that. “As a public institution, UU is bound to the legislature on the safeguarding of adequate spending of public funds and the prevention of conflicts of interest.”

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