Life and Research in the Netherlands Part 2: The Scientific Establishment

Having got to grips with the language and culture of the Netherlands (see Part 1), you will be able to focus more thoroughly on your scientific pursuits. Broadly speaking, research is the same everywhere, and this universality is reassuring. However, here, as in other lands, local "dialects" of scientific practice and mentality will be encountered, which I will explore here in Part 2 and later in the final installment of this series.

The first thing you must realize is that the Netherlands is an extremely small country: a scant 112 by 160 miles (180 by 257 km). In other words, it is roughly the size of the island of Sardinia, the Home Counties area of southeast England--or less than half the size of my birthplace, the American state of Ohio. It may sound obvious, but size really does matter when it comes to certain aspects of science. There are a number of good research institutions and universities here, and a sprinkling of biotech companies, but you might find very few scientists actually working in your particular field, and those who exist might not encounter one another very often.

When I ran into this problem, I promptly organized a monthly forum for people working in my field, which met to give informal research talks, swap advice, and, of course, drink beer. I found the Dutch quite enthusiastic about such activities once they had warmed to the idea, and as they seem to have a genetic propensity for forming tightly knit groups, you can gain valuable colleagues this way. Nevertheless, itinerant scientists coming from large metropolitan areas such as Paris, London, Tokyo, or Boston will quickly realize that the frequency of foreign seminar speakers can be quite low in comparison to what they are used to. For this reason, attending symposia abroad will be more than usually essential to keep abreast of all the gossip.

Despite the Netherlands' small size and relative isolation, it does remarkably well in the world league tables. According to the ISI Essential Science Indicators, Holland was one of the top 10 most-cited countries from 1993-2003 (6th place), with only England, Germany, France, and Italy ahead of it in Europe. Of these papers, ISI revealed that the Dutch discipline with the highest impact relative to the rest of the world was agricultural sciences, which harmonizes with the endless fields of grazing livestock and swaths of tulips visible from train windows. Also ranked quite highly were plant and animal sciences, chemistry, space science (the European Space Agency has its research center in Noordwijk), and clinical medicine. Not faring so well, with a negative relative world impact, were immunology, neuroscience, and economics and business. So do your research before you come and make sure that you are in a place that will maximize your chances of success.

Female scientists who want to do research in the Netherlands should be very much aware of the inherent chauvinism built into science in this country. Most women, regardless of where they come from in the world, are accustomed to a scarcity of female professors, and this is also the case here; in fact, the Netherlands is at the bottom of Europe in this regard. But what is disconcerting about the Netherlands is that here even at the postdoctoral level the number of women scientists has already started to fall away.

There is certainly an underlying feeling that, as a woman, you don't fully belong. For example, a great way to turn heads at a major seminar, as a woman, is to ask a question. If you have children, your Dutch colleagues might openly disapprove of your decision to keep working full-time. (The majority of Dutch women don't.) As someone who has herself been in a position of authority, I occasionally encountered male group leaders who were patronizing or dismissive. Fortunately, this is more of an issue with older scientists; Ph.D. students and postdocs seem to treat one another with respect, perhaps an indication that the old prejudices are slowly starting to change.

Gender isn't the only form of political exclusivity to be encountered in the Dutch scientific world. There is a tremendous old-boy network here, so exclusive that even many of the boys don't belong. Cronyism runs rampant in my field, and scientists who don't have the skills or energy to make the right friends can suffer when it comes to getting grants or promotions. The unspoken power is held by relatively few men, and everyone knows who they are. Make sure that you do, too; even if pandering and flattery are against your principles, you should at least make sure not to offend one of them inadvertently. Another thing you might notice in the more provincial places is the relative homogeneity of the researchers. If you want to mix with many foreign colleagues, you will probably prefer major research institutes, which tend to sport a more international feel. Such places also seem to have more female postdocs. When you interview, take a keen look at the demographic picture.

But although exclusivity can be encountered here, Dutch scientists are also not above scrupulously institutionalized opportunities for collegial bonding. The most prominent form of such bonding is the peculiarly Dutch phenomenon of the Dagje Uit (Day Out). Such outings are arranged months in advance and are cloaked in elaborate secrecy, although you can try to guess what you are in for by analyzing the list of items you are asked to bring along. These often comprise alarmingly incongruous combinations, such as "sandwiches, milk, swimming suit, ice axe, latex gloves, and three changes of dry socks." Fortunately, at least one of these is bound to be a red herring to enhance the mystery.

A mandatory element seems to be terrible weather, which does not deter the Dutch one iota. I will never forget standing on a miniature golf course in full waterproof gear in the middle of a raging thunderstorm. Hours after any sane Brit would have retired to the local pub, the Dutch were still gamely standing in an inch of water, hair plastered to their skulls, tapping balls around the sodden course and determined to have fun. And strangely enough, in this context it suddenly is fun. You have not lived until you've sailed, ridden a horse, gone bird watching, or played volleyball with wet feet and a case of mild hypothermia. You find yourself getting into the stubborn swing of it, and when they finally let you escape into a warm restaurant or pub at the end of the day, it feels all the more gezellig (cosy) for having been earned.

Final installment: Scientific Perception and Practice

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