It was Dijkgraaf’s first public address as Minister of Education, Culture and Science. Expectations were high. The globally renowned theoretical physicist was due to speak about the increasing tension between the political and scientific communities.
Among the audience in the full lecture hall of Leiden University were two scientists who have received threats: the Belgian virologist Marc van Ranst and weatherman Gerrit Hiemstra. Virologist Marion Koopmans was also supposed to attend but had to cancel because of a coronavirus infection.
Dijkgraaf began and ended with the war in Ukraine. He talked of a ‘particularly brutal invasion’ and ‘the biggest geopolitical and humanitarian crisis on our continent since the Second World War’. He said that he felt somewhat uncomfortable talking about anything else.
He did, nevertheless. After all, the war is also about haggling over the facts and threatening academics. ‘There is actually less of a difference than we believe between pulling the wool over people’s eyes with propaganda and fake news and – sadly – entering their city in tanks.’
The minister launched into a eulogy to science. For instance, science developed a life-saving vaccine against COVID-19 in double-quick time thanks to research that started dozens of years ago.
For him, the greatest surprise of the coronavirus crisis was ‘that even the fight against a pandemic, an anonymous virus that threatens the entire world, can be politicised’, he said. ‘And that disinformation can spread across the globe just as fast as the virus particles.’
‘There are people here in the hall who have received personal threats’, Dijkgraaf continued, ‘Through hate mail and tribunals and worse. These threats emanate from the darkest recesses of the internet. Unfortunately, also at the heart of our democracy and at their own front door.’ He did not mention Forum for Democracy by name, but the heart of our democracy is the House of Representatives. It was clear to everyone that he meant Thierry Baudet’s party.
The political world ought to be more protective of the facts and of science, Dijkgraaf argued. He feels that this is desperately needed because new crises are already knocking at the door. The minister mentioned the climate, the nitrogen crisis, digital security and social inequality. ‘The knowledge that is gleaned now and in the years ahead can make or break our national resilience. How we gather, protect and use that knowledge to cope with future crises needs to be discussed right now in political circles.’
He hopes that, ultimately, people will be more trusting of science. ‘I regard it as my duty, previously as a scientist and now as minister, to help ensure that as many people as possible are able to unlock the door. So that, with the help of science, they have the frame of reference that they too need, especially in uncertain times.’
But how? ‘You have probably heard me mention more questions and complex puzzles than answers’, he suggested towards the end of his address. ‘I promise you that those answers – all those things for which I am responsible under the coalition agreement – will ultimately be given.’
He was roundly applauded. So as to start looking for those answers, virologist Van Ranst and weatherman Hiemstra took to the stage, along with Ineke Sluiter, President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Professor of Science Communication and renowned mathematician Ionica Smeets.
Smeets admired the courage of her colleagues, who are continuing to share their insights despite all the risks of threats. ‘I don’t have that courage. I once had a death threat and since then I have kept well away from controversial subjects.’
Van Ranst has indeed had police protection for the past 18 months but, despite everything, continues to say what he has to say. His eleven-year-old son no longer dares to open the door because of all the threats. His son used to dream of becoming famous but now he would prefer to lead a life of anonymity. ‘That’s sad.’
Hiemstra, who as a climate activist also gets all kinds of abuse, laid part of the blame on politicians, who tend to want to shop around where science is concerned. ‘People aren’t stupid. If they get the idea that they are being conned, they look for the answers themselves, do their own research and create their own truth.’ And then they risk getting things wrong.
The fact that scientists are receiving threats has been getting attention for a while now, thanks in part to Sluiter of the KNAW. ‘We have no control over the idiots that send nasty tweets from the comfort of their own home’, said Sluiter. But threatened scientists are now getting some support (‘You can look up what you need to do’) and managers will hopefully come to your defence.
No air travel
But how do you create greater trust in science? Lead by example, was one of the panel’s recommendations. Having your own children vaccinated is more persuasive than a table or a graph, Van Ranst argued. Hiemstra is no longer travelling by air, he drives an electric car and is a vegetarian.
In addition, the members of the panel called on the ‘silent majority’ that do trust science. They think it would help if those people actually said something.
All of the panel members were well disposed towards the minister (Sluiter: ‘Keep up the good work!’), but they had some advice too. Sluiter warned, for example, that you cannot separate science and politics entirely, as Dijkgraaf would like. After all, the government pursues a policy for science and decides how much room is given to open science.
Smeets advocated better science communication along the lines of our neighbouring countries. Here it is too dependent on ‘lone wolves who are fighting a losing battle’. There needs to be something more structured, she said.
At the end, the moderator asked Dijkgraaf for a response. Courteously, the minister praised the panel members for their personal commitment. He also thought it was a good idea for the silent majority to make their voices heard. ‘And behaviour has to change in politics too’, he added. ‘That’s where the tone is set, after all.’
Has Dijkgraaf himself faced threats? After the meeting, talking to journalists, he said: ‘A lot is happening online but I simply don’t read most of it.’