Dutch oddity as a remarkable strength

Nieuws | de redactie
3 juni 2009 | “When I first came to Amsterdam, I thought the Dutch research and HE systems were quite odd. All those collaboration-gremiums, all this emphasis on integration of external, social questions into research planning.” But now the British science policy professor and advisor to the OECD and several governments, Stuart Blume, feels that this oddity has become a remarkable strength in the global R&D community of the 21st century.

“Before the internet you couldn’t have the big collaborative networks in research of today. This is one important factor favouring the approach which is traditionally present in the Dutch scientific system.” Professor Blume, emeritus in ‘science dynamics’ at the University of Amsterdam, discussed his long term analysis of Dutch HE and R&D with ScienceGuide at the presentation of the book ‘A country of colourful variety’, on examples of excellent research in the Netherlands.

You say that you were rather intrigued by Dutch R&D and HE when you started here in the early eighties. What element surprised you the most?

There was a whole national system, a tradition as well, of councils and other institutions to organize cooperation between researchers on all kinds of issues and social questions. Some were called ‘working communities’ for such themes. There were ‘science shops’ where citizens and local groups could ‘buy’ input from researchers for their activities.

For me this was quite odd. Remember, I was educated in Oxford in the sixties. The catch phrase then was ‘effortless superiority’. Off course you really worked hard on your research or project, but people weren’t supposed to notice that… We also didn’t think much of business, of making and selling things. You must understand, this really just wasn’t what Oxford-people did at the time.

But here in Holland the R&D and HE system were focused on cooperation with ‘social partners’ within various disciplines.    

Indeed. All this collaboration, all this emphasis on integration of external issues! The Dutch social culture, the ‘polder model’, was clearly important when it came to science. Higher education itself was ‘polderized’ as well. ‘Where is the healthy competition here?’, I was thinking at first.

The next 20-25 years a variety of science policies have radically transformed the situation in The Netherlands. ‘Conditional financing’, the Bachelor-Master, ‘Research schools’, and other policies have been highly succesful in general. The effect is most beneficial, although the failure of resources to keep up with the growing numbers of students and researchers cannot be overlooked. Overall, it’s clear that Dutch research is in a very healthy state, there are many examples of world class scientific work.

So policy makers should be very satisfied with the results of their work here…?

Yes and no – a classic answer of a social scientist, I know. What you can conclude is that the Dutch science and policy moved towards the approach of each other, as is globally happening as well. Research has changed dramatically worldwide. Collaboration between nations and various disciplines has become a crucial element, for instance at the European level for funding and investments.

Moreover, the role of ‘non-academic’ concerns and long term issues are far more essential now. For instance, the new emphasis on ‘mode 2’ research is a good example of this. Dutch higher education has been able to adept quickly to this development, because of its traditional qualities, its ‘polder model’ background.

The oddity of Dutch R&D and HE have in a way become an unexpected source of strength?

Well, when I was preparing my talk about this, that is what struck me. It is an intruiging idea. What I had found so strange here at first, is so very relevant for toplevel research now.

It almost looks like a secret plot of the Ducth policy makers: to open up its researchsystem towards global scientific work at the moment this started to move towards this more collaborative approach. Maybe this idea of a brilliant plot is not so credible… And it is good to avoid complacency, for there are still some important, critical questions we should raise.

One of these questions concerns ‘mode 2 research’. In Holland this has been adopted by the UAS to develop their practice orientated R&D work. What is your reflection on this?

It gives the UAS a clear objective for the nature of their research initiatives. But ‘mode 2’ is more than that. The key is that it integrates external goals and application issues into the research itself. These are seen as much more than just aspects on the outside of the research process, to be adressed afterwards or in a later stage of doing research.

This has become an important element in many research areas and their programming. Take aeronautics, for example. Research here would not be developed or initiated if there were no planes and no questions raised by the developments in sciences because of the existence of these ‘things. Apllication issues have therefore become part of the research itself.

This raises some important, critical questions: Whose goals, whose concerns are key to the perspective of this kind of research? What economic or political issues can become ‘hidden’ in this? I have been working on issues like this concerning medical research, for instance. The technological developments here make it very important to analyze ‘whose perspective’ is leading, or hidden, in research achtivities. This is an essential social discussion at present.

What issues are critical for the continuing succes of the Dutch R&D and HE system? How to build on the positive trend of the last 25 years?

You should give more adequate space fo professors and researchers who are not really good ‘managers’. They need some breathing space in order to succeed. With the new type of ‘university-professor’ steps ahead are made here. But definitely problematic is the visa-situation. This goes on, endlessly, in all elements it concerns, like residence permits, job permits etcetera. The Dutch society sees itself as welcoming and tolerant, but I believe many foreigners have a different opinion on this.

A last critical aspect we should not forget is that the success in giving stimuli for good R&D can be ‘too much’. If it leads to an underappreciation of really good educational work, we will lack balance. So it is always useful to check whether the top professors give courses to first year students or they let their assistents do this job. Really, the balance here is of vital importance.

A pdf of the book ‘A country of colourful variety’ can be found here.

Schrijf je in voor onze nieuwsbrief
ScienceGuide is bij wet verplicht je toestemming te vragen voor het gebruik van cookies.
Lees hier over ons cookiebeleid en klik op OK om akkoord te gaan