New Dutch Academy President Wants Bigger Role for Researchers in Science Policy

Hans Hordijk

Today, molecular biologist Hans Clevers was elected president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). He succeeds mathematical physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf, who has been appointed director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

Clevers, 54, will resign as director of the Hubrecht Institute, a KNAW center for developmental biology and stem cell research in Utrecht, but will continue to run his own research group there as an employee of the University Medical Center Utrecht. His research focuses on molecular signaling in intestinal stem cells and cancer; just last week, KNAW announced that he will be awarded the 2012 Heineken Prize for Medicine, an international award managed by the academy.

Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: You will succeed Robbert Dijkgraaf, whose efforts to popularize science have made him a national celebrity. Will you continue that strategy?

H.C.: The role of the Dutch academy is changing. Over the past centuries, it may have had a tradition of being directed inwards, while strengthening ties with other academies. Recent presidents have started changing that, and Dijkgraaf has appeared on television very frequently. We would like to embed this into the KNAW strategy, but of course it depends on the personality of the president. I might not have the sparkling TV appearance Dijkgraaf has — who knows?

Q: What are the other main tasks of the academy today?

H.C.: Academies should be formed by the best scientists from all disciplines, including the humanities, and give solicited and unsolicited advice to policy makers — about science policy, but about general topics as well. Environmental policy, for instance, should naturally be grounded in scientific data. The academy is the designated organization to provide these data. We have no interests but to represent science.

The problem with Dutch science policy today is that almost no scientists are involved in formulating it. It's companies, government officials, advocacy representatives and deans who have shaped the so-called "top sector policy" that is soon to be implemented in the Netherlands.

Q: Why is that problematic?

H.C.: The top sector policy aims to connect companies, knowledge institutions, and the public sector, but it focuses to a large extent on the market. Private parties are taking the lead and will decide what public institutions should invent. Inventing applications is part of what science does, but not how real innovation happens. We don't just need science for innovation. We also need basic research, and science for society, concerning questions that cannot be answered by technology. That's the domain of the humanities, which have traditionally been important in the Netherlands but have been neglected in government policy. The current policy appears somewhat short-sighted.

Q: The reputation of Dutch social science has suffered a big blow from the Diederik Stapel scandal. How can the field repair its reputation?

H.C.: The academy is taking this case seriously, but emphasizes it was just one person who made these mistakes. We have thousands of good scientists. Of course, things go wrong from time to time, but very serious cases like Stapel's are exceptions.

What we have learned is that the culture of untransparant handling of primary data, which was conventional in Stapel's discipline, is highly outdated. And what we know is: Sooner or later, fraud will be discovered. The essence of science is that all knowledge is tested.

Q: Twelve years ago, KNAW established its "Young Academy." What has it achieved?

H.C.: The Young Academy consists of junior scientists who are members for 5 years. The goal is not to let them flow into the "real" academy afterwards. These scientists are selected for excellence, but also for their personality and their emphasis on public outreach. They talk to politicians as well, because they are less conspicuous in their lobbying efforts than their older colleagues. But they get a message across: We want to keep doing top notch science in our future, but the budgets are going down.

Q: In September, KNAW President Hans Clevers will have to award the Heineken Prize to molecular biologist Hans Clevers. That must be odd.

H.C.: Haha, well, we'll need to find a way to deal with that, since it's clear I cannot do it myself. But that will be solved.