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Minister Dijkgraaf: ‘We must narrow the gap between science and society’

The speed at which science is changing our lives gives rise to tensions and concerns. In his talk at Leiden University, Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf (Education, Culture and Science) said we should talk more about science’s relationship with society and political decision-making.

Dijkgraaf spoke about the growing distance between science and society, the vulnerability of knowledge and the relationship between science and politics, which is under increased pressure.

Increasing gap between science and society

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed the distance between science and society, said Dijkgraaf, and is a unique learning opportunity. ‘It’s the perfect chance to see with your own eyes what happens if a global threat arises and knowledge offers us a way out, but some people prove difficult to reach for a variety of reasons. I see it as my task, first as a scientist and now as a minister, to help unlock the door for as many people as possible. To offer them some certainty in uncertain times, with science at their side.’ He believes we should narrow the gap between science and society.

‘Truth deserves a voice. And that voice must be loud and free.’

The vulnerability of knowledge

Despite the best of intentions to reach more people, we must also be realistic, said Dijkgraaf. ‘Science is vulnerable by its very nature. The more freedom scientists have to share their misunderstandings and doubts, make mistakes and correct them themselves, the more substantiated and considered their insights will ultimately be. And the more we as a society will benefit.’ Dijkgraaf called on politicians to join him in standing up for the facts and thus protecting scientists. ‘Truth deserves a voice. And that voice must be loud and free.’

The relationship between science and politics

This safety is important because the knowledge that arises now and in the coming years can make or break our national resilience. Dijkgraaf will himself look critically at whether facts form the basis of political decisions. At the same time, he said, we must make sure that the dividing line between science and politics does not become blurred. ‘Science can help sketch out scenarios and their consequences. Politicians are responsible for choosing between these scenarios. Such a decision is always uncomfortable, but that discomfort should not fall on the shoulders of science.’

This distinction should remain clear the minister said. ‘While I am the first to subscribe to the power of knowledge as a basis for decision-making, I am the last to pursue a scientific technocracy. That does justice neither to the independence of science nor to the responsibility that comes with governing a country in a democratic constitutional state.’

‘History has taught us that if a lack of freedom comes to power, free science is one of the first to be enslaved.’

Room for doubt

Dijkgraaf hopes there will be room in the political arena for the professionally honest doubts that guide and inspire scientists every day. ‘That would make the political debate so much more true, credible and truthful.’

At the same time, said the minister, there are moments, such as the war in Ukraine, when there can be absolutely no doubt. ‘The dismantling of free life in Ukraine reminds us that freedom can never be taken for granted and must be protected and fought for over and again. Because the space between pulling the wool over people’s eyes with propaganda and fake news and driving a tank into their city is smaller than you might think. History has taught us that if a lack of freedom comes to power, free science is one of the first to be enslaved.’


The speech was followed by a panel discussion about the questions and concerns raised by Minister Dijkgraaf. The gap between science and society is nothing new said the panel. ‘But that doesn't mean you should stop fighting it,’ said Ionica Smeets (Professor of Science Communication at Leiden University). According to her and the other panel members, it is important to talk not only about facts but also about emotions.

Gerrit Hiemstra (a weatherman at NOS) said that scientists should keep repeating their message, even if it is an ‘inconvenient truth’.  He believes this happens too little now.  And Marc Van Ranst (Professor of Virology, KU Leuven) said he would like to see a new social norm that allows you to change your mind. He understands the vulnerability of science all too well. He has received serious threats since he became a well-known virologist during the coronavirus pandemic. ‘Dare to reveal something and let yourself be guided by facts.’ According to Ineke Sluiter (Professor of Greek Language and Literature, Leiden University), there is a large silent majority that does trust science. ‘It would help if they would open their mouths.’

The panel: Marc Van Ranst, Ineke Sluiter, Ionica Smeets and Gerrit Hiemstra.

Watch the speech here and read the full text here (in Dutch).

This event was in collaboration with Leiden2022 - European City of Science.

Text: Dagmar Aarts
Photos: Monique Shaw

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