At the end of September, Maaike Kroon, who was Scientific Talent
of the Year 2015, announced that she would be going to Abu Dhabi. Her ‘boss’ Franks Baaijens, rector at the Technical University Eindhoven, sounded the alarm in Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant. Apparently there was a threat of a Dutch brain drain.
There is no evidence of such an exodus at the moment, says Laurens Hessels, senior researcher at the Rathenau Institute. Data from 2011 show that a quarter of Dutch scientists work abroad – mainly young PhD candidates and postdocs. An equally large number of foreign researchers work at Dutch universities. Unfortunately, there is little information on whether the smart ones are most likely to emigrate. One study does show that slightly more recipients of the prestigious ERC grants came to the Netherlands than left in the period 2008 to 2013.
Talking to young Wageningen professors, it is clear that no one recognizes that picture of an exodus. What they do recognize is the sense of unease. It has become harder to fund research in the Netherlands in recent years as more scientists are competing for the same amount of money. And universities are unable to offer millions in initial funding as a way of attracting talented scientists from abroad. Ironically, it’s the top scientists who are affected least by this, says Dolf Weijers, professor holding a personal chair in Biochemistry. They still get their Veni and ERC grants.
In the meantime, funding opportunities and employee benefits are immensely better in emerging regions such as the Arab Gulf states, says Erwin Bulte, professor of Development Economics. A postdoc can earn more there than a professor in the Netherlands. Talented people like Kroon are given vast sums of money to set up new research groups and institutes. It is a contest that the Netherlands should not even be trying to win, says Bulte. It is much more important to invest in social capital. Take scientifi c networks, the academic climate, sociable departments and pleasant living conditions, for example. This is how the Netherlands can distinguish itself from Abu Dhabi.