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Interview: Physicist Wim van Saarloos takes office as KNAW President

On May 28th, Leiden physicist Wim van Saarloos takes office as President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). He has been vice-president since 2016. ‘The base of our universities is eroding.’

The KNAW is officially ‘the forum, conscience and voice’ of the arts and sciences in The Netherlands. How do you view this role?

‘The KNAW has three roles. Firstly, I see us as the guardian and interpreter of Dutch science. On the national level we are the only independent party that transcends the entire scientific spectrum. An example of our role as guardian is the essay that I wrote together with José van Dijck (resigning President, ed.). We point out the strong and unique characteristics of the Dutch science system, but we also identify a number of worrisome trends. Secondly, the KNAW is a government adviser. This mainly concerns policy for science: the functioning of the scientific system. But we also advise on political issues from a scientific point of view, so science for policy. Take for example policy on climate change or energy. As a third task, we have fifteen research institutes under our care.’

What is your own role in this, and how will you put that into practice?

‘The President is the chairman of the board and also the figurehead of the organization. As President you often get the opportunity to make a point, like at a speech during an award ceremony, in a meeting with the Minister of Science or during appearances in the media. I will certainly reach out to convey the beauty of science and its importance. Due to current topics such as trust in science and alternative facts, it is an increasing task to explain how science works. I also want to strengthen the advisory role from the scientific community on themes with a large social interface or around higher education. For example, one of our members, Martijn Katan, recently suggested in an NRC column that the KNAW should look into the future climate agreement. And last year we published an advisory report on the use of English in higher education, and a position paper with a call for more academically qualified VWO teachers. At the annual prize ceremony for the best profielwerkstukken, we repeatedly notice how especially academically trained teachers know how to motivate their pupils.’

What challenges do you expect to encounter?

'I see it as a major challenge to reverse a number of worrying trends in the Dutch academic world that lead to an ever higher workload for scientists. In preparation for my presidency, I visit all universities, where I have informal discussions with KNAW members and the rector of their university. Worries about increasing work pressure often come up. Among other things, this has to do with trends in the university financing model, which lead to what we call the ‘erosion of the base’ in our essay. This is partly due to shifts in NWO’s external funding and the need to match external resources, but also due to the recent large increase in the number of students and the ever-increasing expectations of society about outreach and valorization. As a result, the space within the universities has declined and the balance strikes out too far towards dependence on external financing and heavy pressure on all researchers to get their own financing from outside. At the same time, there has been a trend to distribute funding in ever larger chunks, for example broad consortia within the Zwaartekracht Program or investments in large facilities. It is important that we continue to serve the entire spectrum of research, from the individual scientist to the large facilities and consortia. To re-balance this is the big challenge. Extra investments are crucial here, but it’s not only that. We also have to reverse a number of trends. The funding must be increased, but at the same time you need to avoid only hiring more researchers, otherwise the competition for external funding will increase even further. So part of the money should be spent on infrastructure, support, lab facilities or education. Or for example on PhD positions, so that a group leader can occasionally acquire a PhD position within the university if an excellent student presents him- or herself.’

‘It will also be a challenge to erase the perverse incentives in the allocation system of universities. They are under pressure to recruit as many students as possible, because the money is divided in proportion to their number of students. That sets off a race to the bottom: universities attract more students because of the competition, but the total sum of money remains essentially the same. The result is that there is increasingly less money per student.’

The debate around English-language education also has to do with student numbers.

‘Exactly, that is an illustration of this dilemma. By offering courses in English, more foreign students come to The Netherlands. This is an added value for many programs, such as the technical studies, and also illustrates the attractiveness of Dutch universities. On the other hand, there is now the concern that students from The Netherlands will not get sufficient opportunities for some programs with a numerus fixus. So we should fundamentally look at the balance in the system and the distribution models, and into the role and position of higher education in Dutch society. We have to dare to differentiate per study program. Our advisory report on English emphasized that the assessment must be made for each program, so not university-wide. Moreover, it pointed out that in some studies English could be an extra-large barrier for Dutch students with a migrant background, who are already growing up bilingually.’

What makes you most proud to be KNAW President?

'That it is an organization of the best Dutch scientists who are committed to the best science and connection of science and society.’

What will your first week as President look like?

‘'First I have a board meeting, then a meeting with all directors of our institutes. Next, I fly to Vienna for a consultation with other academies on advising the European Commission. I am the chairman of the European panel that is responsible for advice on energy. So it will be a lot of consulting, advising, and acting as figurehead for the KNAW.'

Credit header image: Bram Saeys

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