News - September 6, 2011

Verhagen: get more from the knowledge billions

The Netherlands is good at using public money to generate knowledge. In fact, we are very good at this but we are not so good at then converting that knowledge into more money. That will have to change, said Minister Verhagen yesterday in the official opening of the academic year.

'Revenue' was the dominant concept yesterday. How can we use the billions we invest in knowledge to support the economy and solve our urgent problems (food shortages and climate problems, to name but two)? It was no coincidence that Verhagen raised that question in the Wageningen UR auditorium because the Minister (for Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation) sees Wageningen as a role model: a knowledge institution that collaborates closely with the business community and is facilitated by the government. In other words, an example of the 'golden triangle', the theme for the official opening of the academic year.

Even the term 'polder model' got a mention yesterday, despite the fact that it is back out of favour because of its association with the nanny state. But Verhagen thinks collaboration and consultation between sectors lead to useful innovations as then research is directed towards real needs. But doesn't this have an adverse effect on research quality? Verhagen again gave the example of Wageningen: 'look at her rankings'.

Verhagen's ideas will take more shape next week when the Minister presents his plans for bringing the scientific and business communities closer together in nine priority sectors. Bernard Wientjes, the chairman of the Confederation of Netherlands Industry and Employers and the second speaker at the opening of the academic year, agreed that this is an excellent initiative. He did wonder whether we would be prepared to make choices 'in a country that finds it difficult to make choices'. And what about the traditional fear among businesses, universities and government of interference in each other's affairs?

Furthermore, the current intellectual climate in the Netherlands is not ideal for this development, said Wientjes. After all, he thinks we are too focussed on our domestic problems and the anti-EU tendency is becoming increasingly vocal. 'While a relatively minor problem like the EHEC bacteria showed how closely our economies are interlinked', argued Wientjes in reference to the sudden collapse in exports of cucumbers. He said it would be 'a disaster' if the EU were to fall apart. 'Even thinking about it is dangerous.'
He also felt the increasing criticism of the internationalization of education is mistaken. As far as he was concerned even the students from England, who often come for financial reasons, are welcome. 'This way you are bringing knowledge to the Netherlands. Even if they go back to their own country, they remain ambassadors for the Netherlands for the rest of their lives.' According to him, restricting their numbers is a good example of penny wise, pound foolish. He added: 'In the seventeenth century 40 per cent of the students in the Netherlands were from abroad'. Of course, the then universities of Franeker and Harderwijk did not survive, but let's not talk about that.