Going Dutch? Paying the Netherlands' Research Bill

The nights are drawing in. But as the season of goodwill approaches, it seems unlikely that science and scientific researchers in the Netherlands can look forward to a prosperous New Year. Faced with the second abdication of a government in the space of 12 months, and confronting the lowest economic growth rate forecast for any EU country in the coming year, the Netherlands parliament had to make some tough financial decisions last week. Science is likely to feel much of the squeeze, and because vote winners such as public safety, the quality of health care, and immigration are all higher on political agendas, scientists will almost certainly continue to be left out in the cold after the 22 January general election.

Education, writ large, is given a high priority in all manifestos. But unfortunately that largesse is focused on the primary and secondary years and does not extend to the universities. Indeed, if the current plans go through, the higher education system (the 13 Dutch universities and 50 higher vocational schools) faces budget reductions of ?143 million per year. To add insult to injury, in the coming year they will also receive no correction for inflation. Such a cut will have a fundamental impact on higher education, particularly as the resulting 4% reduction in the budget for 2003 will grow cumulatively year on year. Unless this measure is corrected, by 2006 Dutch universities could be looking at a shortfall in their research budgets of between ?160 million and ?340 million.

The one glimmer of hope for Dutch researchers is that the science budget for NWO, the national research council of the Netherlands and a sponsor of the Next Wave Netherlands site, is not under direct attack. Science Minister Maria van der Hoeven has decided that both science and culture must be protected from cutbacks. Indeed, van der Hoeven reacted positively to a recent appeal from both industry and the academic research sector to raise NWO's budget by at least ?100 million. However, unless her ministry gets its hands on any new cash, which seems unlikely in the current climate, kind words are all that the researchers will receive.

Nonetheless van der Hoeven must increase investment in science if she is not to suffer embarrassment at the hands of peers elsewhere in the European Union. Two years ago in Lisbon the EU formulated ambitious plans to strive to become the most innovative knowledge-based economy in the world, and specified 2 years later in Barcelona that in order to fulfil that ambition it is necessary to raise budgets for science and innovation in all member states to the level of 3% of the gross national products by 2010. The Netherlands not only underwrote this ambition, but stipulated that it wants to be one of the top performers within the EU. At the moment, however, only 1.9% of the gross national product is spent on science and research. And this is set to fall to approximately 1.6% following the drastic pruning of academic budgets. To meet the government's promise, Dutch spending on science and innovation would need to increase by at least ?1 billion per year over that period. The Netherlands will preside over the European Union in 2004. On that occasion van der Hoeven will discuss with her colleagues progress toward the Lisbon and Barcelona goals. The poor achievements in this field in her own country might be hard to justify.

As if economic recession were not bad enough, earlier this month Dutch research came close to its most expensive loss yet. The Netherlands has a special development fund, the so-called ICES/KIS fund resulting from returns on natural resources such as gas production, for the development of knowledge infrastructure. Some ?800 million is earmarked to be spent on scientific research by 2010. But at the beginning of November Frans de Nerée tot Babberich, a Christian Democrat MP, almost succeeded in diverting ?360 million from this special fund into spending on transport infrastructure.

Thanks to a quick and effective reaction from the research community, this attempt did not succeed. But many more politicians are now aware of this special fund and will, without any doubt, try to plunder it for other future projects.

However, what was perhaps most remarkable about this attempted 'theft' of ? 360 million from the research budget was the total lack of reaction in the general press. Not a single newspaper reported this political attack on science. The press was not interested in this 'revolution that wasn't.'

One could hardly ask for a more graphic illustration of the weak position of science and scientific research in the Netherlands. And as long as Dutch scientists score relatively highly in all sorts of international comparisons, the chance that the Dutch science budget will be raised to a decent international level seems to be rather small.

A bad strategy would be to lean back and watch the science base shrink due to massive retirement of older faculty coupled with an inability to attract young talent into a science system that, thanks to budgetary restrictions, offers few career prospects. A better strategy would be for the scientific community to join forces and to continue discussing the situation and the necessity of science and scientific research in the political arena. That the ICES/KIS funds were saved for research shows that politicians at least have ears to listen. How much money they have to spend on research, though, will ultimately depend on the economy.

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