Daydreams of the future

Opening of the academic year offers scope for both elation and worries
By Vincent Bongers

Rector Magnificus Paul van der Heijden was able to present some healthy figures in the Pieterskerk last Monday at the opening of the academic year, but in the end, it is all a matter of money.

The university is expanding rapidly and a market share of ten per cent – the Executive Board’s dream for so long - is finally becoming a reality. Van der Heijden presented the most recent figures for the preliminary applications and they are looking good: in 2012, 4900 Bachelor students applied to the university compared to 3,900 in 2009, raising the market share from 7.5 to nine per cent. Well, that’s the good news. In the meantime, the government’s contribution per student has dropped sixteen per cent since 2002. “We’re sorry to say regret that the consecutive governments of the last decade have not paid promptly”, said Van der Heijden. “And scientific research can’t count on any special treatment from the government either, financially speaking.” Minister of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation and Leiden alumnus Maxime Verhagen, who also held a speech, did his best to show that the government does indeed invest heavily in research, listing new forms of alliance between the government, trade and industry and science that are to boost the knowledge economy. “The “polder model” doesn’t work anymore”, claimed the Minister. “The government can’t do everything better, but the same goes for businesses and scientists. This means that we need each other to come up with some new solutions, develop them and to introduce them to the market. We need to reinvent the polder.” Verhagen maintains that he had already started up the renaissance of the polder by introducing his top sector policy. “I asked all the top teams of scientists and entrepreneurs: what do you need to become more innovative and more competitive?” According to the Minister, trade and industry, the government and the universities annually invest 2.5 billion Euros in this policy. The research is done by top consortiums. “If businesses invest their money in research done by a consortium, starting on 1 October, the government will add another 25 per cent to it. The bonus is 40 per cent of the first 20,000 Euros.” The government has reserved 90 million for this measure. Obviously, that is not going to be enough to make the Dutch knowledge economy blossom over night, as Paul Schnabel, university lecturer at Utrecht and the Director of Central Social Planning Office, one of government’s most important advisory bodies, pointed out in his speech. He discussed the Dutch ambition to belong to the global top five of knowledge economies. (The Netherlands became fifth last Wednesday, ed.)Schnabel’s analysis was full of witticisms and gibes, particularly aimed at The Hague. “It’s hard to tell, but most politicians have been to university. Even so, the relationship between science and politics has always been somewhat laborious and strained.” He also had the distinct impression that politicians do not always know what they are talking about. “Take this top five”, said Schnabel. “Many politicians do not even actually know who the competition is for this prominent position. China, for instance, is not in the top ten, but is often mentioned in debates between the leading candidates, and would-be leading candidates and would-be, would-be leading candidates.”  So, which nations are in the top five? Surprisingly, it contains many small countries such as Sweden, Switzerland (number one) and Singapore. The Netherlands is not doing badly in seventh place. We are actually doing quite well, but if we want to maintain or even improve this position, we need lots of money, according to Schnabel. Investments in research and development are most badly needed. In addition, the labour market is too rigid and there are too many regulations that obstruct businesses. The government needs to be more flexible, and labour productivity needs to increase.But money is the most important issue. Take Germany, for example: they invest far more in innovation than we do, and that applies both to the government and to trade and industry. And don’t forget: “The Germans adopt a course and stick to it – the policy in the Netherlands is always changing, ruining everything we have just achieved.”If we want to keep up with Germany, we will need to eventually double the expenditure for R&D in the Netherlands to twenty billion.” The ceremony also meant it was time for awards:  Anton Akhmerov received the Gratama Science Award for young talent for his research on graphene, a super thin layer of carbon with special physical powers.Maartje van den Heuvel, curator of the university’s special collections and specialist in photography and photographics, was awarded the 2012 K.J. Cath Prize. This prize is presented to employees who put a favourable focus on the university’s name. VB

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