His lecture drew attention mainly because of his appeal to the political world to protect scientists. We cannot accept that research leads to threats, he stated.
But he did not stop there. He also wondered why some people distrust science and reject something like a lifesaving coronavirus vaccine. In his opinion, scientists ought to be more communicative in order to reduce the distance between science and society.
In fact he believes they are already doing so. ‘Scientists are increasingly regarding public engagement as a matter of course’, Dijkgraaf said in his address. ‘Young scientists in particular are finding creative ways of reaching a new public.’
Science can defend us against future threats, he contended. ‘Whether it’s the climate, the environment, nature, housing, healthcare, work or equal opportunities… for each challenge that faces us, society needs to build on the latest research, the newest insights, the most reliable data, the smartest analyses.’
Afterwards the minister spoke to journalists, including to HOP. The government is going to invest in science. Will topics such as national security, pandemics and other threats get priority?
‘No’, is his immediate answer. ‘One of the great things about science is that it is very dynamic and that scientists learn from one another what is interesting and what is less interesting. One of my main tasks is to foster science across the board.’
He does refer, however, to the arrangements in the coalition agreement about a climate fund and a growth fund for the economy and for innovations. ‘But in my portfolio, the Education, Culture and Science portfolio, I have to look in the first instance at science across the board.’
But those topics are of concern to him. ‘How do we make science accessible for the general public? How do we secure that knowledge? Those are major issues, in my view. If all goes to plan, we will step things up in the years ahead. So it would be ideal if we could put some of those topics into the mix as well.’
This is part and parcel of the pursuit of ‘recognition and rewards’, he confirms. Scientists must get the opportunity to busy themselves with tasks other than research. For instance, they could focus on teaching or propagating their knowledge in society.
Dijkgraaf is in favour of such a development. Are there no financial consequences attached to ‘recognition and rewards’? ‘I don’t think about financial consequences’, he says initially, ‘but I certainly want to discuss matters with higher education institutions and research institutes. We have a wide range of tasks; how can you ensure in particular that young workers who would like to focus on one of those tasks get the opportunity to do so?’
Some institutions are more likely to be pro-active in that respect than others. Is the minister going to provide some money for that? Dijkgraaf hesitates. ‘Well… I still have to look at exactly how I’m going to do it but I would really like to reach an understanding with the entire academic field: how can we jointly tackle those issues? And I honestly think – and I can see – that universities want that too. They recognise that a modern university does a lot more than just research.’
Carrot or stick?
So will there be a financial big stick? Dijkgraaf smiles: ‘I have always been a believer in the carrot rather than the stick.’ In other words, encourage things that are going well rather than penalise what is not. It remains to be seen how he will structure it and how much money will be involved.