Friday 18 October 2019

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?’

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