Universiteit Leiden

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Hielco Kuipers

‘The sun never sets on our university'

Leiden University has partnerships in the local region, in the Netherlands, in Europe and with countries on almost all the world's continents. Students and researchers benefit from these partnerships, but society is also a beneficiary, says Rector Carel Stolker.

Stolker says he's not worried by the statements made earlier this year in Dutch newspaper NRC by the Rectors of Delft University of Technology and Erasmus University Rotterdam and the CEO of the Erasmus Medical Center about their burgeoning relationship. 'The Leiden-Delft-Erasmus (LDE) alliance has been in place since 2012, but the connections between Leiden and Delft have a much longer history and have always been very strong. We have a joint research school and a number of joint science programmes. The links with Erasmus University were less visible,' Stolker explains. He also points out the other Leiden-Delft-Rotterdam connection - Medical Delta -  where, as well as the universities in Leiden, Delft and Rotterdam, the medical centres in Leiden and Maasstad also collaborate intensively. 

Can you give a concrete example of an improvement that has come out of this collaboration?  

‘The chemistry programme in Leiden wasn't doing so well, but we've now set up a new programme - Molecular Science & Technology - with Delft, combining chemistry and technology, and it's going great guns. You see the same with Life ­Science & Technology, another combined programme. There's also Clinical Technology, which brings together technology and medicine; it's a programme where LUMC works closely with Delft University and the Erasmus Medical Center.’

Tim van der Hagen, Rector of Delft University of Technology:

'We can't resolve the big issues facing society today working from a single specialism; more and more we're seeing the need for a multidisciplinary approach. That's one of the reasons we're so committed to our alliance with Leiden University; the areas of expertise of our two universities are highly complementary. By combining the strengths of Leiden, Delft and Erasmus and the Leiden and Rotterdam Medical Centers, we're going to tear down the walls between science, humanities, medicine and technology. Together with these partners, we're setting up 25 new labs in Delft and another five in Leiden, where researchers will be working on AI - artificial intelligence - in technological contexts. They'll also study the use of AI in other areas, including law, linguistics, ethics and philosophy, logistics, finance, energy, health and climate issues. Ultimately, AI will become part of the teaching programmes of all 85,000 students at our three universities.' 

Does this partnership mean you'll be turning out a different type of graduate?

‘In society at large you come in contact with people from very different scientific backgrounds from your own. That's what we prepare our students for with our joint minors, and with the elective subjects that we offer students at all three universities. Over two thousand students from Leiden, Delft and Rotterdam are making good use of these opportunities this year. They'll find that the social, scientific and academic environments of the three universities are very different from one another. The experiences they gain will make it easier for them to think in interdisciplinary terms later.' 

Does that mean that societal issues will be dealt with better? 

‘It certainly does! Take, for example, the Centre for ­Frugal Innovation in Africa, where specialists from Leiden, Delft and Erasmus University collaborate. For frugal innovations – smart solutions that are low cost and can be make on the spot - you need technical people, but you also need anthropologists and specialists who understand economics. Each of these specialists asks questions that wouldn't occur to their colleagues, but that need to be asked if we want to resolve the problems effectively. This kind of multidisciplinary approach makes it possible to produce a simple X-ray machine, for example, that doesn't get damaged if it's dropped, and that a health workerin the field in Africa can use to determine whether or not a patient has pneumonia.'

'Another area is the research on colonialism. A researcher from Delft will want to know all about the construction of the ships at that time, how many people they could carry and how fast they could travel. An Erasmus student will be able to work out the economic issues, and a Leiden student will study the effects of colonialism on society.'  

Does Leiden also lose something in these partnerships? Working together generally means surrendering something.  

‘So far, I have more the feeling that by working together we get double the benefits. Each of us has looked for societal and scientific questions where we need one another's expertise, but at the same time, we're keeping our typical Leiden disciplines. We have an enormous wealth of knowledge in Leiden about the languages and cultures of Asia, Africa and Latin America, and then there are all the contacts and partnerships that go hand in hand with that knowledge. Just think of China, Indonesia, Korea, Brazil and Mexico, not to mention our Africa Studies Centre.'

'We're often asked whether we're not trying to do too much, and whether we ought to be making particular choices. But that's not always possible. If we were to stop our Chinese or Japanese programmes, for example, there'd nobody to take them over. These programmes are only taught in Leiden and we can't just cancel them - nor do we want to. And, besides, they're an intrinsic part of our world-class collections. We study East and West. The sun never sets on Leiden University.' 

Besides Delft and Rotterdam, do you have partnerships with other important partners?  

‘Definitely. As far as international universities are concerned, the LERU (League of European Research Universities) is extremely important for us. The different professionals within the 23 universities - such as the Vice-Rectors of Research, the HR staff, the marketing people, the directors responsible for fundraising and alumni policy, the Vice-Rectors of Teaching & Learning - all have regular contact with one another. We exchange knowledge and experience in such areas as fundraising, academic integrity, citizen ­science  and entrepreneurship, and pool idea on how we can respond to issues like Brexit. We have a joint lobby in Brussels for our research budget - and not only for the LERU partners. Leuven has traditionally been a good partner for us within LERU; we share a common language and have a similar profile. Edinburgh is also a key partner because of the similarities between our two universities.'

And then there's Europaeum

‘That's a superb European network of seventeen universities, including the Central European universities. Europaeum is mainly interesting for young SSH (Social Sciences & Humanities) researchers whose research focuses on Europe, in areas such as the law, socio-politics, economics and history. PhD candidates spend six weeks at a particular location where they can take part in symposia and visit different institutions. Another new project is EuniWell, the European University of Well-being, where Leiden collaborates with six other European universities. Vice-Rector Hester Bijl has worked enormously hard on EuniWell, a network that focuses mainly on collaboration among students. The aim is to improve the well-being of all European citizens.’

Bart van Zijl Langhout, head of Janssen Campus The Netherlands:

‘Leiden University is important for us because a lot of fundamental research is done at the university that we can build on further. We have to remember that we're only as good as the people working for us, and Leiden University trains our future employees. We collaborate in the Leiden Leadership Programme, an honours programme for master's students from Leiden, Rotterdam and Delft. As part of the programme, students from different faculties at the three universities work together on assignments.

We also have many partnerships on the Leiden Bio Science Park. I'm a Leiden alumnus and I once worked in the biochemistry lab run by Professor Rob Schilperoort, the man who founded the Bio Science Park. Now I work with the university on behalf of Janssen to bring more innovative companies, new laboratories and scientific conferences onto the park.  The Netherlands must remain an attractive place to study, innovate and conduct research. That's the only way we can keep our competitive edge internationally.' 

So far it all sounds very positive, but some partnerships can be highly complex. 

‘Iran can be a complex country to work with, as can China. There's a chill wind blowing through Chinese universities, and we have to take care with our policy of Open Science and Open Access, bearing in mind what information will fall into Chinese hands. Three of the Dutch ministries help with their input: Education and Science, Foreign Affairs, and Economic Affairs. It's political factors that can make it more difficult to work with these countries, not the local universities themselves. As Rector, I've always emphasised how important worldwide scientific collaboration is, and that's something we really do believe in.' 

How are the relations with your immediate neighbours, the  Bio Science Park?

‘The collaboration with the Bio Science Park is intensive, but it could be even stronger: our researchers, particularly from the Faculties of Science and Medicine, work closely with entrepreneurs and researchers in the companies on the park. Our students also do internships and take part in other projects, under the supervision of our lecturers and professors. Science and practice come together here, and deliver immediate benefits for society. There are lots of different companies on the park working on key areas of drug development. This is another area where Hester Bijl is playing a key role, together with Pancras Hogendoorn, Dean of LUMC, and Martijn ­Ridderbos, Vice-Chairman of our Executive Board, who directs regional development and real estate.’

That's a long list of partners. Did we forget anyone?  

‘Ultimately, it's all about different forms of cooperation that we have no real authority over: it's the work of our three thousand researchers. When you put it all together, that's an enormous scope. If a light went on everywhere in the globe that a student or researcher from Leiden is active at a point in time, the whole globe would be lit up!’


This article appeared previously in Leidraad, 2020-2. Leidraad is the alumni magazine of Leiden University.  

Text: Malou van Hintum 
Images: Hielco Kuipers, iStockphoto, Wikipedia

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