Hans Clever can be seen as both the ambassador and the conscience of the Dutch scientific community. On 12 June the president of the Royal Dutch Academy of the Sciences (KNAW) will give a lecture in Orion, at the invitation of the Wageningen Young Academy. Resource met him in advance at the KNAW headquarters in Amsterdam.
These are turbulent times for the sciences. Publication pressure and the Diederik Stapel fraud case are two of the topics which stir up a lot of discussion. The dissident researchers of Science in Transition go so far as to call contemporary science a ‘PhD factory’. So the first question is obvious.
Is science in crisis?
‘Not at all. Of course the critics have a point sometimes. Science in Transition, for instance, hits the nail on the head with its warning that scientists churn out much too much paper. When it comes to publications, there should be less emphasis on quantity and more on quality. But on other points I am less convinced by the critics. The idea that the universities produce too many PhD graduates, for example. We need to get away from the idea that PhD students are destined for a research career. See a PhD trajectory as a four-year extension of your higher education which will bring a wide range of jobs in reach. But that broad view of things may often be lacking within the programmes, so that the PhD students themselves get the idea they are involved in a game of musical chairs.’
Anyone hoping to make it in academia has to cope with the suffocating restrictions of tenure track (a career path towards a professorship). Have we gone too far in that?
‘I myself am positive about tenure track. It has provided much-needed transparency in the career policy of universities. Now it is clear to everybody why someone gets to a particular position, whereas people sometimes used to get the impression there was a lot of wheeling and dealing behind the scenes.’
But does such pressure to publish have to be part of it?
‘Is that really so? The pressure on academics to perform is not as high in the Netherlands as in other countries. Take the US, where you still have to bring in funding to be sure of your salary, even when you are nearly retiring. Or China, with its bonus system. The main problem is that the publication pressure is uneven here. Young researchers are 100 percent dependent on their success in publication, but once you are inside the bastion of the university, you are paid out of the lump sum financing and it is very difficult to get rid of you again. That could be spread better. And someone like Diederik Stapel has a nerve to give the pressure to publish as an excuse. As a dean, he had been home and dry for a long time. There were clearly criminal factors at work in his case – or psychiatric ones.
– Born on 27 March 1957 in Eindhoven
– Studied medicine and biology. PhD at Utrecht, Postdoc at Harvard
– 1991: Professor of Immunology, 2002 professor of Molecular Genetics
– 2010-2012 Director of the KNAW’s Hubrecht Institute for Development Biology and Stem Cell Research
– 2012: President of the KNAW
Is Stapel a sign, too, of a decline in ethical standards among scientists?
‘The so-called deteriorating integrity among Dutch scientists is largely a preoccupation of Dutch scientists themselves. For the public, science is still seen as trustworthy, and this theme is much less of an issue in other countries too. In the Netherlands we have established perfectly good procedures regarding integrity, partly through the KNAW. But that does mean there can be disproportional attention to what are actually minor incidents. An added factor in the social sciences is that it is a young discipline which, when it comes to publications, is still in the phase of “the more the merrier”. That is bound to change.’
The Netherlands is not doing very well when it comes to the amount the country spends on fundamental research. Is that a problem?
‘A big problem. We are doing badly on that count. We now spend 0.78 percent of the GNP, but under this cabinet that will go down to 0.65 percent – a drop of 20 percent. The government is counting a tax rebate for innovative companies as R&D funding, but there is no indication at all that it really goes into innovation. Compare us with Finland, which invests 1.5 to 2 percent of its GNP on science, and you cannot avoid the conclusion that the whole edifice is going to come crashing down here at some point.’
The strange thing is that we still score well on the rankings for science and innovations. ‘That is thanks to socio-cultural factors – call it the national character. That is incredibly well-suited to scientific purposes. For example, we have little respect for hierarchy and therefore a big capacity for independent, original thinking. Then we are ambitious, communicative and good at sharing our experiences with others, both successes and failures. In many other countries, one or more of these factors are missing. In the US, for instance, researchers are certainly ambitious, but they prefer to keep their findings to themselves because of the extremely competitive climate. Only England and the Scandinavian countries are similar to the Netherlands. So we are superefficient, but the flip side is that this hides a systemic problem, a lack of funding, for a long time. The danger is that we shall therefore soon reach a tipping point, and it will then be difficult to undo the damage done.’
Isn’t it up to the KNAW to change that?
‘We are working very hard on that. Last year I talked to all the party chairs and some interesting findings came out of that: according to the calculation methodology of current economic models, investing in science is totally unprofitable because the results are so uncertain. So if as a party you allocate funding to science, the calculations on your programme by the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB) make it disappear into a black hole. This makes it very unattractive politically. There is the same problem with reinforcing the dykes. Everyone knows things will go wrong if you don’t do it, but the models cannot depict that. We have tried to solve that problem through our own economists, and we seem to be having some success in that now. They have found a method of at least quantifying the absorption capacity of a society, the degree to which you can process new global developments. The VSNU is enthusiastic and the EU has shown some interest. We hope to be able to convince the CPB as well.’
It must please you that more and more young people are opting for an academic degree. Could we end up with too many graduates?
‘No, but you do need to realize the consequences. Recruiting more students means the average level of talent will go down. If you want to keep up the quality of graduates you will have to intensify the education. But the opposite is happening: we are seeing large groups and e-learning concepts are gaining ground. But I am not in favour of restricting entry. It is every individual’s prerogative to get as high an education as possible. And this has advantages for society as well: democracy is more robust when the population is highly educated and the quality of many professions goes up. Imagine if soon all teachers of upper secondary classes have had a university education. Everyone benefits from good scientific education.’