The Harvest of Science Education

Nieuws | de redactie
30 juni 2009 | If a government is really prepared to invest in science, the social and economic pay-off will be tremendous, history shows. But without a knowledge boost, talks about a knowledge economy are like promoting an oil economy without oil, it is argued by Jos Engelen, who lately became president of the Dutch Science Council NWO. He points at the impact of the work of Gerard ‘t Hooft, who started as a student in Utrecht.

The title that was given to me for this lecture reads, in Dutch: de moderne bèta-faculteit. I will make my life easy by translating that as: the modern science faculty, assuming that is an accurate translation.

‘Door meten tot weten’. Another text in Dutch that I find hard to translate. It is a now classical statement by Kamerlingh Onnes, prominent Dutch physicist and Nobel Prize winner, who, early in the last century was the first to liquefy helium and to discover superconductivity. ‘Through measurement to knowledge’ is the translation I will use, although I feel it is not quite adequate. It is probably as difficult to capture the subtleties of this Dutch text in English as it is to capture those of ‘to be or not to be’ in Dutch.

‘Through measurement to knowledge’: the statement compactly summarizes the methodological essence of the natural sciences. The teaching of science is the task of the universities. This task can only flourish in an environment where the adage ‘through measurement to knowledge’ can be turned into practice.

Not too Brutal
But before the future scientist can push back the frontiers of what we know and of what we can, she first has to live through a phase of ‘through studying to knowledge’. It is known at every faculty that during this phase the student has to be treated with care. In particular because of the decreasing interest of young people to enroll in the natural sciences this cautiousness has strongly grown during the last ten, fifteen years. The curriculum has to fit in with the knowledge the future student has acquired at high school and the curriculum also has to be attractive. A young student who feels attracted by the romance of quarks and black holes should not be immediately deterred by a too brutal introduction of differential equations, of matrices, unitary or not, or by ramshackle laboratory classes. The modern science faculty has invested in an innovative curriculum and in an attractive and well equipped environment for training.

I cannot claim any particular expertise in this area so I will not dwell on it, but looking at some recently or soon to be opened science faculty buildings  I observe that these latter aspects, an attractive well equipped environment have received due attention.

But above all a modern science faculty sees to it that the distance between scientific instruction and scientific research is as small as possible. It does this in two ways: by involving active researches in the training as much as possible and by introducing students to ongoing research as soon as possible.

Big Science
‘Through measurement to knowledge’. Kamerlingh Onnes had decided to liquefy helium and to measure the temperature at which the condensation took place. He had decided to do this experiment, not because it was easy, but because it was hard and because no one had achieved this before. To create new knowledge he had to push back boundaries. He had to build a large experimental set up and he needed the help of skilled technicians (‘instrumentmakers’). He needed ‘materials’, not in the last place costly helium. He needed considerable funds. ‘Big science’ avant la lettre.

He succeeded in organizing and financing the project – without the guarantee of success, let alone the prospect of what nowadays we call ‘valorisation’. We now know that he was successful: in 1908 he observed for the first time liquid helium and in 1911 he made an unequalled, breathtaking discovery: that of superconductivity. When superconducting a metal or a metal alloy completely loses its electrical resistance and can carry enormous current densities. Incidentally, it took half a century until superconductivity was understood – the phenomenon was way ahead of its time!

Superconductivity is now routinely applied in superconducting magnets. These superconducting magnets, in turn, find applications again in basic research (for example high energy physics), but also in medical diagnostics (MRI). Also in ITER, the fusion test experiment in Cadarache, with Dutch participation.

Kamerlingh Onnes’s research took place in a university laboratory. Such laboratories should remain the cradle of new discoveries and should remain the place where talented students are trained and won for research. But this is easier said than done. Good researchers need good infrastructure and advanced equipment which in turn attract good researchers.

In the Netherlands we have about ten (research) universities in the area of the natural sciences. Is that a large enough number for a country of 40.000 km2  and 16 million inhabitants? It corresponds to one university per 4.000 km2.

That surface corresponds to a square with sides of length 63 km. That is truly not a large distance to travel. The actual distribution of universities of course deviates from this simplified picture, but I still think it would be hard to argue, on general grounds, in favor of creating a new ‘green fields’ university in the Netherlands, but if specific arguments for a specific region can be made, I would not oppose them.

Black Holes and Real Passion

In fact ten universities are too many to allow all of them to have available the most advanced research infrastructure for each relevant area. Should the universities then trade these ‘relevant areas’ among each other including the corresponding research infrastructure? That is not an attractive solution. The attractiveness of a university is especially large because of the presence of many fields of expertise and students should be able to determine their choices and follow their preferences at ‘their’ university. As I heard a well-known biologist – now politician – put it: even if they are attracted by black holes, a number of them will discover that organic chemistry is their real passion.

An attractive science faculty has (almost) everything to offer, but not every faculty can maintain the most modern research infrastructure in every possible area – that is why that faculty encourages its researchers to participate in national and international collaborations that do have access to this infrastructure and equipment.

In the Netherlands, we have research institutes with a national function. Institutes often funded largely through ‘the second flow of funding’ (in Dutch: ‘de tweede geldstroom’), so not directly by a university. These institutes often accommodate a costly infrastructural provision of (inter)national interest and/or constitute a centre of expertise of (inter)national interest. They also offer, without exception, opportunities for multilateral collaborations with the Dutch universities. Conversely such collaborations are of vital importance for the institutes, not in the last place because of the contact with students. Moreover, a smart human resources policy offers opportunities for both the institutes and the universities.

It is easy to point out a number of examples, although the cooperation between universities and, let me call them the indirectly funded institutes (‘tweede-geldstroominstituten’) could be intensified in a number of cases. In fact this is a problem of governance: university boards prefer to emphasize the excellence of their university rather than the excellence of their collaborations and joint ventures. Anyway, let us look at a number of examples of frontier research accessible to our universities, among others through national institutes.

In May the Herschel telescope was launched with a very advanced instrument on board – HIFI – for observing the birth of stars and planets, built by space research centre SRON. Soon the radio telescope LOFAR will become operational, built by astronomy institute ASTRON – LOFAR is an instrument unique in the world. Dutch researchers are at the forefront of the quest for the Higgs particle, a quest that will soon gain enormous momentum at CERN in Geneva: thanks to the NIKHEF institute every Dutch undergraduate or graduate student who wishes so has direct access to this adventure.

The new and fascinating properties of nano-crystals (‘quantum dots’) can be explored by our researchers at Delft and at other places thanks to the investments in the required infrastructure. Research of seas and oceans in all its aspects is possible thanks to NIOZ, operating, amongst others, the research vessel Pelagia. The NIOO, the Dutch institute for ecology does research to find out how living creatures interact with each other and with their environment.

Nature is studied in all its facets: from the DNA of bacteria to the biodiversity of ecosystems. Research at the frontier of development biology and stem cell research is performed at the Hubrecht institute. The High Field Magnet Lab offers possibilities for studying materials in extremely high magnetic fields: research that is possible at very few places in the world only.

These were some examples of national institutes/infrastructures performing or allowing frontier scientific research. The list is certainly not complete, but the message is clear: the ambitious Dutch science faculty has access to these institutes: for its researchers and for its students.

Let me work out one example in somewhat more detail. Not because this is necessarily the most important example, but it is the one I am most familiar with. It also allows me to make a small excursion into science and although it is a small deviation from the main thrust of this lecture you will hopefully find it interesting enough to forgive me.

In 1971, Gerard ‘t Hooft, Ph.D. student in Utrecht, published an article that made him world-famous in one blow. The title of the article was: ‘Renormalizable Lagrangians for Massive Gauge Fields’. Veltman and he received the Nobel Prize for it in 1999. A rather esoteric subject, you will say. Yet it has everything to do with something very practical: the World Wide Web that was introduced by Tim Berners Lee about twenty years ago. Let me explain.

The article by ‘t Hooft laid the basis for a quantitative theory of elementary particles and fields and their interactions. The keyword here is quantitative: using the theory it was possible to explain measurements and make predictions. The old theory, for example, to explain a well known phenomenon like radioactivity turned, from a theory that was very shaky, into a theory that was exactly right.

In the years that followed many new discoveries were made: the W boson, the Z boson, the Tau lepton, the Charm quark and much, much more: everything fitted seamlessly in the Standard Model based on ‘t Hooft’s and Veltman’s insights. That is to say, one small detail still needed to be settled. One ingredient, absolutely essential for the theory still needed to (and in fact still needs to!) be found experimentally. Let us give it a name, for ease of conversation: the Higgs boson. In 1989 the then largest particle accelerator in the world was put into operation at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, CERN in Geneva. The Netherlands is one of the founders of this European Intergovernmental Research Organization.

This wonderful device and the corresponding experimental set ups have yielded a fantastic treasure of results. Thanks to NIKHEF, a national institute in which also several universities participate, many Dutch Ph.D. students have had the opportunity to write a thesis about the results of their research, obtained with the help of this accelerator, known under the name LEP.

Vague but exciting

The scientific harvest of this project is impressive: thanks to ‘t Hooft’s and Veltman’s work a very large body of new and unique experimental results appeared to fit perfectly in this wonderful Standard Model. The experiments required a large scale effort. They required technological innovations, the design of the complex and large experimental setups required the collaboration of many engineers and physicists, the creation of the software required new approaches to software engineering and above all: all this required good documentation and good communication between hundreds of people. And because he felt this need and had the right vision Tim Berners Lee created ‘hypertext mark up language’ and ‘hypertext transfer protocol’.

That he and Robert Cailleau understood from the beginning that this was something ‘big’ is illustrated by the fact that they coined the name ‘worldwide web’. Mike Sendall, at that time Berners Lee’s boss, once showed me the Memorandum, written by Berners Lee and submitted to Sendall for approval, requesting 100,000 Swiss Francs or so to be able to try out his ideas. Mike showed me his handwritten comment on the Memorandum: ‘vague but exciting’. That meant: OK, go ahead, spend the money. It was the go ahead for an innovation that had profound consequences for scientific, economic and cultural life. Consequences, by the way, that we have not even begun to understand yet: largely very positive, but, like many discoveries and innovations this one also has its dark sides.

Before getting carried away and sidetracked too much let me remind you of the line of argument: a brilliant student found the right environment at a Dutch university for developing his talents; the fantastic ‘big science’ that developed ‘inter alia’ led to the World Wide Web; the Dutch participation in this ‘big science’ led to first class scientific results – this participation by scientists, students, engineers was possible because of strong and healthy science faculties collaborating through a national institute.

Let us, at this point have a look at the European perspective. In order to make Europe more than the sum of its parts, an absolute necessity for remaining competitive on a global scale, the European Commission attempts to stimulate effective collaboration between the member states. Although these attempts, at least their results are worryingly ineffective, at least some of them do have a beneficial effect.

One is the Bologna Declaration, leading, at least in principle, to a Europe-wide, harmonized bachelor-master system and allowing students to move more easily across Europe. The modern Dutch science university should be attractive for foreign students and have an active policy for recruiting them. The conditions for being attractive for these students are not very different from those to be attractive for Dutch students: attractive and stimulating environment, natural contact with top research and top researchers.

And this requires access to and involvement in the creation of European research infrastructures. In this area a good coordination at the national level, here in the Netherlands, is absolutely necessary. And practically absent… I personally see an important role here for NWO, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, not to dominate but to organize and steer the discussion. Where individual universities have to worry about their own plans and problems first, NWO can, by construction, operate from the perspective of our national interest.

A roadmap for European research infrastructures has been proposed by ESFRI: the European Strategy Forum for Research Infrastructures. Although I personally have some difficulty with the lack of transparency of the ESFRI process, at least as far as the Dutch input is concerned, the roadmap has turned out to be an authoritative document. And, to immediately off-set my criticism, also I think it is a valuable document.

Let us have a look at the projects appearing on the roadmap which are potentially relevant for our science universities. I only mention a few here, just to illustrate my point: we will need to make decisions on adequate investments soon – otherwise the Netherlands will be left behind, it will be impossible to catch up and our knowledge based economy will never develop.

So, to give you a flavor, here are a few future research infrastructures: Advanced Computing in Europe; Square Kilometer Array for radio-astronomy (global); Pan-European Infrastructure for Nano-structures; European Extremely Large Telescope for optical astronomy; Hard X-ray Free Electron Laser in Hamburg; European Spallation Source for neutron spectroscopy; European Magnetic Field Laboratory; Integrated carbon observation system; Infrastructure for research on the protection, management and sustainable use of biodiversity – and there is more, much more including projects underway like ITER (fusion) and LHC (particle physics).

The Netherlands will have to plan its share of the many billions that need to be invested. More importantly it needs to allow the Dutch scientists at universities and institutes to conduct their scientific research in the context of Europeanization and globalization of collaborations and infrastructures. Conversely our scientists should be brought in a position to actively influence European investments in research. It is clear that in my proposed stratification: universities, national institutes it should be easy to connect to the European and global level quite naturally.

Heading for Mediocrity?
The investments in research and development in the Netherlands are insufficient. The support for the universities is less than generous, to say the least. The analyses are known, I will not repeat them here. What I find very worrying is that we do not manage to convey the urgency of the situation to our authorities and in particular to our politicians. If we wait until it is obvious that the Netherlands has lost its competitive position it is too late to catch up. Mediocrity will be the standard – perhaps a more comfortable environment for some of our politicians, but not for most of us.

I am, however, not pessimistic. The dynamism of science is so strong that we will be able to turn the tide. The discoveries in physics, chemistry and also and in particular in the life sciences are and will be so spectacular that the scientists will simply not accept to be excluded. KNAW, NWO, VSNU and other organizations as well as individual scientists: together we will find the way to convince our government to realize what it means to be a knowledge based economy. This for me is one of the greatest puzzles of all: how can we express the vision that our future is a knowledge based economy, where we neglect knowledge. It is as if we planned for an oil based economy, forgetting one detail: that we have no oil!

Furthermore, although it is obvious, let us continue to argue that science is the basis for addressing the problems we face:  climate change, the need for new energy resources, avoiding pandemics, achieving a sustainable society. If we manage to create the right environment, one that stimulates and is attractive for young people, the universities in the Netherlands, including the science faculties, have a great future! NWO is ready to make leading contributions to create this environment.

Jos Engelen read this speech as the Gemma Frisius Lecture for the Fryske Akademy on June, 30, 2009.

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