KNAW President Dogterom: ‘Policy consultations should be more effective’

Since the Covid crisis, science has been at the heart of society, yet it is being criticised and threatened. Marileen Dogterom, the new KNAW President, argues for fairness.

"After a crisis like Covid, you start rethinking about how to turn scientific knowledge into policy advice more efficiently" (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

There was a lot to redress in the confidence in science and at the worst point, threats were sent to the home address of RIVM (National Institute for Public Health and the Environment) top manager Jaap van Dissel and Marion Koopmans who had to cancel her trip to the Oeral Festival because of security issues. You are taking office in the middle of a storm, aren’t you? How do you see this?
“It does not feel so much like a storm as strange times. My predecessor Ineke Sluiter went through the storm. The dynamics of a lot of things have changed. This is interesting and raise so many questions. What is the situation around consultations, confidence in science, the interaction between advice and politics, the public that meddles with this? And the uncalled for targets – who did what wrong?”

Will the KNAW do its own evaluation of the role of science during the Covid crisis? 
“We are now looking back in different ways. We have gone through several consultation processes. One of them is about the impact of Covid on confidence in science, and the impact on science. We also have a consultation process called Pandemic Awareness on what we learned about the crisis in terms of substance and what it means for the future. And we have a third process called Planetary Health that looks at things like the factors that influence zoonosis. Last summer, jointly with The Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR), we issued scenarios on the future of the Covid pandemic and their consequences on policy. We looked at Covid being a regular flu, a centuries long battle, and a worst-case scenario. These scenarios are now being used in The Hague. In the meantime, under the auspices of the WRR, the KNAW is working out scenarios for various sectors such as sports, education, culture and so on. In doing this, we are helping find solutions. But this is different to evaluating the consultation process. Here the KNAW took more distance than the RIVM, for example.” 

What would you like to see done differently?
“In my acceptance speech, I said that I wanted to think about how we can deploy the voice of science more effectively. This could apply to climate change too, for example. After a crisis like Covid, you start rethinking about how to turn scientific knowledge into policy advice more efficiently. The KNAW is better placed than other institutes as we have scientists from all disciplines in house. This is where I would like to put my efforts.”

You have already mentioned the climate, which also experiences the same problem in terms of scientific credibility.
“Absolutely. There is a huge tendency to shoot the messenger if someone does not like the news. Another scientist can always be found who will say something that they like better.” 

Is this what today’s world means for scientists? That you are no longer distanced from society but are right in the middle of it?
“That is how it should be. It is also a sign that we now have to deal with major societal problems in which we desperately need science. Scientific findings impact the daily lives of people more now than ever before. This does mean though that science is under a magnifying glass and that not everything is valued. It is a pity, though, when this is accompanied by the negative portrayal of the people who bring unwelcome messages.”

Is this an inherent part of your role?
“Well yes, but there are boundaries of course. Criticism should not be unfair, unfounded or threatening. But to be honest, the aggression towards individuals makes me feel very uncomfortable.”

Are you prepared for verbal aggression?
“I will have to be should it happen. But I am not trained for it and in my role it is not that bad. As experts in their field, people like Marion Koopmans and Jaap van Dissel were in the firing line. They really went, and are still going, through a lot. But the President of the KNAW has not experienced this in the last two years.” 

What is your role should scientists be attacked?
“To help keep the debate on an even keel. Where necessary, I will point out that scientists should not be threatened. Just like my predecessor, I will stand by them and support them personally. You can do this publicly and say that you find it unacceptable that professionals are threatened because of their work. We are working with the Dutch Research Council and universities to draw attention to this. There is also a role in supporting people personally behind the scenes too. We did this in our capacity as the Board of the KNAW too. It was also during the Covid period when everyone was at home.”

There is another hot topic at the moment: diversity. According to your predecessor, Ineke Sluiter, everyone is aware of it but too little is done in practice. How do you see this?
“The subject has been on the agenda for long enough. People have gotten used to it being on the agenda, that it is discussed and evaluated in terms of whether it is going well enough. I do see the ratio in gender diversity shifting. The next thing is that a university strives to not only reflect society in terms of gender, but also more broadly. There is still a way to go here. I have spent 35 years in physics as a woman. In the beginning I saw that people joked about it, that women could not be that successful in that field. But things have really changed. It is now accepted that more diverse research groups deliver higher quality research.” 

 And how is that understanding reflected in practice?
“You need to always be aware of diversity, as we are not there yet. This means that you raise the issue of diversity in all layers of the work floor right up to board level.” 

What is your position on compulsory measures such as quotas?
“I am not against speeding things up in this way. It is better if you do not need them, of course. If you look at industry, a Europe-wide agreement has just been reached that at least 40% of supervisory boards and commissioners must be women.”

Another point: recognition and validation. In your acceptance speech you said that we must not caricature each other’s positions. What kind of caricatures are there?
“Recognition and validation is a wide subject that in essence is about creating and rewarding diverse career paths. This cannot be done one dimensionally by only counting publications, or the one-sided use of ‘metrics’. Furthermore, it is not only about education, but also about such things as open science and team science. But before you know it, you are in the middle of polarised discussions on just one issue. There are discussions such as ‘the sciences do not want to be involved in recognition and validation because they want to uphold the use of metrics’. The humanities and social and behavioural people do not want anything to do with metrics such as h-indexes and journal impact factors, and believe recognition and validation are the answer. But it is not that black and white. Different groups have different opinions, but by creating caricatures, the opinions of the other are swept off the table. And certainly so if they are not in physical discussions but communicate through open letters in newspapers.” 

Is there any progress here?
“Yes, I think so, but it will take time as it is about what the academic world finds important. It is about the qualities that we want in education, research and leadership. If you want all these things, it will not happen by prioritising just one of these aspects.” 

Publications are measurable, but I can imagine that this is more difficult for societal impact?
“Publications may be measurable, but this is not necessarily informative. I always say that it is hard work to measure quality. You cannot measure quality by filling in a list and there are no other usable formulas. So you simply need to spend time on it. And this sometimes involves metrics. It is also nonsense to throw metrics overboard. You sometimes need to compare a researcher to their peers in certain subject areas. And you need to ask if someone is having an impact on the field or if they are doing innovative things in research. The one-sided emphasis on research is also connected to acquiring funds. If universities are dependent on fund raising – and we are – that talent weighs disproportionately. I have said it before, it is an arrow that only points in one direction. Recognition and validation will not stop.”

There is also much to do about financing. Researchers spend a lot of time applying for funds from the NWO and only have a 10% chance. The KNAW proposed ‘rolling grants’, a type of working capital for researchers employed by a university. What is the status of this?
This is a question for the Minister. The proposal is emphasised in a letter to the House of Representatives in the run-up to the Spring Memorandum. I am now learning all about this. The Coalition Agreement contained quite a lot of additional monies for fundamental research and the university world. And the term ‘rolling grants’ appears in the main thrust of the letter. The idea has thus at least been received. We now need to await the situation when it is worked out.”
(Update: on 20 June 2022, it was announced that Minister of Education Dijkgraaf will indeed award starting researchers with working capital. It is a one-time stimulus and thus differs from the instrument that the KNAW proposed.)

Will the rolling grant reduce the pressure on the NWO?
“According to the proposal, researchers will receive research funds that they can spend at their own discretion at various points in their career: as Assistant Professor, Associate Professor or Professor. This means that when a project terminates, they do not have to worry immediately. This is currently the case as there is no money until they have again acquired a grant. This is leading to researchers submitting a lot of applications and thus the need for a lot of assessments. The rolling grant will bring some calm into the current system of jumping out of the starting blocks and then standing still.”

You wish to combine the presidency of the KNAW (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences) with research at TU Delft. How will you do this?
In the agreement I am available for the KNAW three days a week and for everything that happens at TU Delft for two days. I will continue to supervise my group in those two days. Wednesday and Friday are the TU Delft days. The KNAW can fill up Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. So, three days and two days is the plan.

We have discussed a whole list of subjects and you are doing the Presidency part-time. That does raise the question what you believe should definitely have changed in three years’ time?
“What I would really like to see is to see that the consultation capacity to the Government changes. Both KNAW members and other scientific experts should have a good system of drawing on their expertise in issuing advice. This is already in place, but I believe that it can be improved.” 

  • Marileen Dogterom (1967) is Professor of Biophysics and until recently was Head of the Bionanoscience Department, part of the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience, at the Faculty of Applied Sciences at TU Delft. 
  • She heads a national consortium called BaSyC (Building a Synthetic Cell) which strives to understand life processes through building synthetic cells. She received a prestigious ERC Synergy Grant and the Spinoza Award in 2018 for her work. 
  • She became the new President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) on 1 June 2022 and will serve a three-year term.
  • She lives with her partner and their two daughters (aged 12 and 14) in the middle of the region’s Green Heart along the De Meije River, just about as far from Amsterdam as from Delft. 


Science editor Jos Wassink

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