Dutch Nobel Prize winner criticises minister's research plan

Dutch Nobel Prize winner criticises minister’s research plan

Dutch Nobel Prize winner Ben Feringa has told the Financieele Dagblad he seriously questions whether the government will continue invest enough money in long-term fundamental research. The professor of organic chemistry at the University of Groningen said there is a ‘dangerous trend’ that scientists are being given less and less room to conduct free and independent research and to think creatively, while that is precisely what yields the major breakthroughs. Feringa was responding to new proposals from junior education minister Sander Dekker, who said on Thursday he planned to provide extra government cash for scientists who collaborate with the business sector. Dekker wants the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) to take account of an academic’s performance in terms of valorisation (or converting scientific knowledge into economic and socially useful services and products) in assessing grant applications. Employers’ organisations VNO-NCW and MKB Nederland welcome the government’s plan. ‘But I do not think I would have won the Nobel Prize at the end of last year if at the start of my research 30 years ago I had been required to explain its social and economic usefulness,’ Feringa said. Feringa was referring to the iPhone, some of whose components, such as the display and transistor, were discovered 60 years ago. ‘But with all that knowledge we have only been able to make smartphones in the last 10 years. And could anyone have predicted 20 years ago that the smartphone would be one of the great social revolutions of our time?’  More >



Funding boost for result-driven science

Dutch Nobel Prize winner criticises minister’s research plan Scientists who translate their knowledge into products or services for companies or civil-society organisations should qualify more easily for public research funds, junior education minister Sander Dekker said in an interview with the Financieele Dagblad. The minister hopes his proposals, which will be sent to parliament on Thursday, will reduce the academic focus on ‘the length of the list of publications’ in prominent scientific journals. ‘We have to move away from that perverse incentive,’ Dekker said. ‘Every year 2.5 million scientific articles are produced and that number is growing. Who still reads them? Some scientists divide their research into publishable blocks in order to climb in the rankings. That no longer has anything to do with academic quality and the impact of the research on our welfare and prosperity.’ The minister said scientists who do not go along with the culture of ‘publish or perish’ are seldom rewarded. Setting up a company or consulting patients’ organisations to learn what their needs are, according to the minister, still regarded as ‘child’s play, a hobby’. ‘But seeking to make a difference should be one of the hallmarks of every scientist,’ Dekker said. Business links To improve the link between science and business, the government is planning to provide extra incentives for scientists to cooperate with companies and public organisations. In practice, this means that the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), which spends €650m a year, will in future consider a scientist’s track record in the area of valorisation in assessing grant applications. Dekker has also earmarked €10m for scientists who carry out doctoral research with a company. The grants for these so-called ‘industrial doctorates’ are specifically intended for small and medium-sized firms, since large companies like Shell and Philips already have contacts with the universities. If the pilot is a success, the scheme may in future be expanded to public institutions, such as local councils, Dekker said.  More >


Dutch researchers study pet happiness

Dutch Nobel Prize winner criticises minister’s research plan The faculty of veterinary medicine at Utrecht University is to carry out research into how contented pets in the Netherlands are, television show EditieNL said on Wednesday. There are over 33 million pets in the Netherlands and assistant professor Nienke Endenburg, who specialises in the relationships between animals and humans, says the research will be extremely useful. In particular a lack of knowledge about pets' specific needs means owners make mistakes about how they treat their animals, she told EditieNL. Owners do not deliberately cause dogs to become overweight or leave cats alone all day, she said. 'It is mostly about lifestyle,' she said. 'People have busy jobs and small houses. But this can stop a pet living as it should and this can lead to behavioural issues.' While it is easy to see if a dog is too heavy, it is much harder to determine if an animal is content, she said. 'Some people try to project human emotions on their pets... but you cannot look into a cat's eyes to find out what they are thinking.'  More >


IS women research under fire: NRC

University research into IS women was carried out by IS sympathiser: NRC University of Amsterdam research into women who have joined the terrorist movement IS was partly carried out by a researcher who has herself praised the violent jihad on internet, according to the NRC. The paper says Aysha Navest writes under a pseudonym on web forums praising jihadis and the university has now called in external experts to analyse the study. Aysha Navest interviewed 22 female jihadists for the study, some of whom she already knew before they left. One of her published conclusions was that many of the women do not take part in the fighting but only lead a domestic life while living in IS territory. The study, published in 2016, could benefit women who return from IS-controlled areas, the NRC points out. However, the public prosecution department bases its arguments on previous research by Leiden and Amsterdam universities which found women do play a role in the jihad, specifically by finding new female recruits. The new study has limited value and, being based purely on interviews with IS women themselves, 'we don't consider it to be credible,' a spokesman told the paper. Messages The paper discovered that she has written messages on the forum Marokko.nl under the pseudonym ‘Ought Aicha’ (Sister Aicha). The texts say that people travelling to Syria can expect a reward in paradise and that IS fighters are wrongly criminalised by fellow Muslims. She also expressed approval of a suicide attack by IS and praised Osama bin Laden for his fight to ‘protect our Muslim community’, the NRC reported. Navest said in a reaction that she does not sympathise with the armed jihad but would not reply to the question of whether the account on the forum is hers. No bias Her fellow researchers, Annelies Moors, professor of contemporary Muslim societies at the University of Amsterdam, and anthropologist Martijn de Koning, say there ‘was no sign of possible bias’ on the part of Navest and that they still stand behind the study. However, the NRC says, other researchers say the methods used were not sufficiently transparent. The interviews with the women in IS-controlled areas were conducted via WhatsApp, without their names being known to the researchers. Critics told the NRC  it is important for researchers to know the identity of their respondents in order to prevent fraud.  More >


Teacher commits suicide at school

Dutch Nobel Prize winner criticises minister’s research plan Pupils at a Den Bosch high school were sent home early on Monday after a teacher committed suicide by jumping off one of the school buildings. A number of pupils at the Stedelijk Gymnasium school witnessed the maths teacher jump, a police spokesman told reporters. Local broadcaster Omroep Brabant said the man jumped off the building shortly before 10am, when many pupils were arriving. The school has some 800 pupils. One person told the Telegraaf that it was widely known the teacher was lonely but that he was a popular teacher. He had taught at the school for some 10 years and is said to have been aged around 50. 'This has had an enormous impact on the school, the pupils and staff, school head  Etha Schoemaker told the paper.   More >