In an increasingly assertive society such as here in the Netherlands, the prestige accorded to academics is under threat. What academics say is no longer unquestioningly accepted as ‘the truth’ by the general public.

No more ivory towers and pedestals – citizens have become critical, sometimes through knowledge, sometimes through ignorance.

International academics who come to work at TU Delft don’t notice this right away. They are far removed from the Dutch social debate, certainly at the start of their term in the Netherlands.

How different this is to the situation in their own country, where these international knowledge workers have often spent a great deal of their career. What can they tell us about their status in their own country? Do they know how citizens and policymakers perceive their work? Are academics at all occupied with these questions?

A tour of TU Delft colleagues from Turkey, Iraq, Italy, China, Belgium and England – a random selection from the dozens of countries where TU Delft academics originate from – tells us that the response of most of them to this last question is a resounding ‘yes’. And that what may well be the most science-friendly country is closer than we think.


The most harrowing story in this respect is that of microbiologist Salah Al-zuhairy from Iraq. For years he worked in fear of his life, until he fled to the Netherlands last year and started working in the faculty of Applied Sciences. One of his colleagues was killed, another seriously injured in an attack. He himself was run down by a car in 2005, an attempt on his life which left him with a head injury.

Scientists in Iraq are without exception treated with suspicion from all sides, he says. “Because scientists were working on weapons of mass destruction during the regime of Saddam Hussein.” The situation has not grown any safer since the fall of Saddam. According to Al-zuhairy, the current administration suspects all scientists of collaboration with terrorists. And even if the researchers do not want to, they may be forced to work for terrorists.

As a bio-technologist, Al-zuhairy worked on a bacterium to control a certain type of insect. “The process we used to make this bacterium is the same process used to make anthrax. I am an ethical person, I don’t believe in violence and killing. But I was scared I would be forced to start producing anthrax.”

Besides the constant fear – Al-zuhairy took a different route to work every day – there was also enormous inefficiency. “Research in Iraq is at a very low level. Scientists can only work at one percent of their capacity. They are merely trying to survive, they don’t have access to many essential instruments and the electricity supply is very erratic.”

And then of course there is the corruption. “Corrupt people – just like terrorists – don’t like science.” When I saw in 2003 just how much water pollution there was in my country – people were getting sick and even dying because of the water – I wanted to do something about it. I made a simple device which could be used by anyone to test if water was safe to drink. But I couldn’t find a single businessman willing to invest in it. They would rather import equipment from China, because then they can line their own pockets.”


That corruption is something that also confronts academics in Italy can be seen from the story told by Pasquale Cirillo. Since this summer he has been working as Assistant Professor of Applied Probability in the faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science (EEMCS). “Family ties are very important in Italy. That is a good thing, as people care for each other, you are never on your own. But there are boundaries on how far that caring should go. It shouldn’t be the case that a professor can wangle a job for his son who is totally unsuitable for the position. I have no problem with hierarchy, but the person who is above me should know more than I do. Most Italian academics are great, but there is a strong minority who ruin it for the rest. That’s why I left. The number of highly educated people in Italy is low,” explains Cirillo, “even among some political parties such as the Lega Nord. They have little respect for science.” But other parties also feel that if cutbacks need to be made, they should be made in research. “This is easier to push through than cutbacks in defence, or the Roman Catholic church, because Italian scientists don’t have a massive lobby machine at their disposal.”

And then there is another huge problem: the majority of women don’t go out to work. “They are stay-at-home wives who watch a lot of TV. And the more TV you watch, the dumber you get. People have lost the ability to think critically.”

Cirillo sees television as the main reason why science has so little prestige in Italy. People have grown used to spectacular shows with little substance and large numbers of scantily clad ladies. “Silvio Berlusconi has changed Italian society with his television stations. New values have taken the place of the old. The worst affected are the women, because these days beauty is valued more highly than ability. The form is more important than the content. And people have got so much used to the situation that they don’t even want to change. When I was at junior school all the girls wanted to be an astronaut or a judge. Now all the schoolgirls want to be Veline (a sexy TV star, ed.).”

So it’s hardly surprising that science gets very little TV coverage. “You have to wait till after 11 p.m. to see any scientific programmes. And otherwise you only see researchers on TV if they’ve made a great discovery. And once you’ve appeared on TV, well, you immediately become a sort of demigod.”

Great Britain

The power of the media is a popular topic of conversation, for example with Brit Phil Vardon, Assistant Professor of Soil Mechanics at Civil Engineering and Geosciences. The British media are “very, very sceptical”, says Vardon. “They’re always looking for a story, and preferably something negative. The tabloids in particular love a scary story, for example about the flu.” He feels the British gutter press is worse than the Dutch in this respect.

For the rest he thinks that England and the Netherlands are fairly similar in the amount of trust they place in science. “I often find that people have a faulty perception of what it means to work in a university. For example, they think we spend all our time lecturing, while of course we are also conducting research. And many people still think that scientists pronounce absolute truths, while there is always uncertainty. This creates a problem with claims regarding health. After a while, people start to think scientists just say anything.”


Someone who could never be accused of just saying anything is the Turkish Nici Karkin, visiting researcher at Technology, Policy and Management. People treat him with respect when he says he is an academic, he says. But he feels that other academics in his country squander this respect by getting involved in the political debate. “Our profession demands neutrality, so I feel we should not express political ideas. Politics are very clear cut in Turkey. If you are left-wing, then right-wing students will have no time for you, and vice-versa. Then they will not be open to anything you have to say in your lectures. Our political culture hasn’t grown up yet. We have no tolerance for our opponents. Sometimes students literally fight each other for political reasons. I feel that academics should not get involved in this. Our work should remain purely academic. But unfortunately most academics see this differently; they love to air their opinions on TV. That is something I would never do. Even my wife doesn’t know who I vote for.”

Karkin’s story also reveals his immense frustration at the low salaries for academics in Turkey. As an associate professor, he earns 1200 euros per month in Turkey. “While a university-schooled starter can easily earn 1350 euros in the business sector. This means the smartest students choose to work outside academia. I was a top student at a top university myself. I saw a vacancy at the university and applied for the job. Back then the salary was fine, but now I have a wife and children there’s barely enough to make ends meet. Only it’s difficult to change direction now, because wherever I go I would have to start afresh. Being an academic in Turkey means working hard for not enough salary.”


The Chinese Xialu Wang, who came to the faculty of Architecture as a PhD candidate six months ago, isn’t complaining about lack of salary and respect. She feels at least part of the falling confidence in China is the fault of the researchers themselves. “There have been scientists who have made irresponsible claims on internet and TV. For example, they have promoted medical instruments that were no good. And a little while ago it turned out that a prominent scientist had falsified data. This has damaged the reputation of the universities.”

Wang understands how this could happen. “The economic development of China is very fast. So the business community expects fast results from the scientific community, but of course that’s not how it works. And of course many scientists occupy administrative positions. They can’t invest all their time in research, but they are under enormous pressure to produce results.”

And what about the government? How does it respond to unwelcome research results? Wang doesn’t have any examples, she says. “If I make any suggestions about the development of the urban infrastructure, the government can choose whether or not to follow my advice. I trust that if I can do something to help the city, the government will go along with this.”


From Asia we return much closer to home: Belgium. This article is not based on academic research, so it would be wrong to make grandiose claims. Yet what Toon van Waterschoot, former post-doctoral researcher in the Circuits & Systems research group at EEMCS and currently researcher at KU Leuven, tells us about his own country is enough to make many a Dutch academic’s mouth water. In Belgium confidence in science “knows no bounds”, says Van Waterschoot.

Professors at the university, regardless of whether they are full or assistant, enjoy a high social status. The academic world presents itself to the general public in an honest way. Within the universities there is a continued tradition of focusing on integrity. “My university has a special department that monitors integrity.” Incidents involving fraud are very rare, and if they do occur they are dealt with immediately, as the institutions publicly express their condemnation.

While at TU Delft Van Waterschoot noticed the high value that is attached to rankings. “In Belgium this is far less important. Maybe Belgium has less of a focus on performance; more is not necessarily better. Of course how much you publish is also important in Belgium, but what you publish is far more important. Quality is more important than quantity. I think there is more attention for teaching at the universities, and not just for prestigious research projects.”

Higher education is far more accessible in Belgium, says Van Waterschoot. The quality newspapers publish serious articles on science daily. So how is it that scientists seem to command more respect in Belgium than in the Netherlands? “Maybe because we come out of the tradition of the Catholic church, which is far more hierarchical than the protestant church. Only now it’s no longer the priest, but the doctor, the lawyer and the researcher who enjoy high status. And maybe our educational model, where a lot of focus is still placed on rote learning of facts, plays a role. People have experienced for themselves how difficult that is, so maybe that is why they admire those who have had to learn more and for longer.”

Saskia Bonger is an editor at Delta.

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