Jet Bussemaker - Interview

When it comes to research funding, everyone in the scientific community has an opinion. But looking to the government alone for solutions is too easy, according to Jet Bussemaker, Minister of Education, Culture and Science. “We all need to keep an open mind and not shy away from new approaches and experiments.” 

The Institute for Chemical Immunology (ICI) is one of a select group of large-scale research projects funded through the Dutch NWO Gravitation Program. The program was started in 2012 to inspire excellent Dutch research groups and bring them together in long-term collaborative research projects to be funded for a period of ten years. ICI Bulletin talks to minister Jet Bussemaker, who is responsible for the Gravitation Program, about the importance of collaboration, the future of Gravitation projects and how we can ensure development opportunities for young scientists. 

The Institute for Chemical Immunology brings together two very different research fields: chemistry and immunology. Was this type of scientific cross-over a specific objective of the Gravitation Program? 

“The most important scientific insights are the result of collaborations between scientists working in different areas. Furthermore, the big questions our society is facing are too complex to be addressed by a single scientific discipline. So yes, stimulating collaboration between research fields is a key element in the Gravitation Program, and the Institute for Chemical Immunology has chosen a very interesting crossover to generate new insights and innovative solutions. What I would also like to see are collaborations across the domains. For example between science and the humanities, or between the natural and social sciences.” 

What, in your view, constitutes a meaningful collaboration?

“A collaboration should not be driven by a practical, one-way need as in, ‘I just need you to perform this experiment or answer this question’. We want to stimulate long-term partnerships that enable scientists to formulate new questions together. Such partnerships are not only needed to tackle current questions, but also to shape the relevant questions for the future. In this respect, ICI is a very good example of what we envision with the Gravitation Program.”

In ICI non-academic partners like pharmaceutical companies and patient associations are also involved. Is industry involvement an opportunity or a threat to science?

“Collaborating with partners outside academia offers many opportunities to further develop scientific results into tangible applications that have a clear social benefit. This is also an important part of the Gravitation Program. At the same time, we should always safeguard the independent position of academic research. Scientists should never be pressured when it comes to the content or the timing of their, preferably open access, publications.” 

The funding horizon of the Gravitation Program is ten years. What happens after that term? Can successful partnerships apply for follow-up funding?

“I don’t think it would be wise to guarantee funding for an indefinite period of time. Gravitation funding is limited to ten years. We expect successful initiatives to be able to secure the necessary funding from other sources after that period. To me, it is important that initiatives fit within the long-term research lines of the Dutch National Research Agenda, because that provides the context for new research themes that should be addressed. It is quite possible that existing Gravitation projects can generate new partnerships to take on new large-scale research challenges. Such new projects could be eligible for Gravitation funding.”

The Gravitation Program supports large-scale initiatives that are internationally leading in their respective fields. There is a trend to fund big initiatives in other national and European programs as well. This automatically favours established scientists with proven track records and large networks. Many scientists, including those involved in Gravitation projects, worry that this trend will lead to less and less room for young researchers to make their mark and develop their own ideas. Do you share that concern?

“I am well aware that a relatively small number of scientists in the Netherlands attracts a very large share of the available research budget. And for good reasons: they really are doing outstanding work. But this ‘winner takes all principle’ is a serious point of concern. It is essential that young research talent has the opportunity to develop into the next generation of leading scientists. On the other hand, largescale projects offer many possibilities for young researchers to gain experience and carve out a niche of their own. The Gravitation projects have a clear responsibility when it comes to the education and training of young scientists.”

Nevertheless, the overall pressure on research budgets has made the competition in the few funding programs that provide personal grants even fiercer. Scoring excellent points on your proposal is no guarantee for funding. Increasing the budgets for these funding schemes seems the most direct way of creating opportunities for young researchers.

“It goes without saying that investing in young researchers is the key to the future of science. But we should stop looking immediately to the government to provide a solution. I think the universities could play a more active role here as well. It is also up to them to ensure career opportunities for upcoming researchers. We all need to keep an open mind and not shy away from new approaches and experiments. That is why I am very pleased that a number of universities are starting to offer scholarships to graduate students. I know this is controversial, and we will of course closely monitor and evaluate the consequences. However, scholarships offer graduate students a more independent position, allowing them to focus more on their own ideas. Whatever the outcome, I am convinced that we should not be afraid to try something new. If we don’t dare to experiment, we will keep on facing the same problems.” 

If you had to choose between funding large programs led by established scientists or young researchers with far-reaching, groundbreaking ideas?

“That is a choice that I don’t want to make and I’m not going to make. The reason is simple: we need both. In my view, funding should first and foremost be based on the scientific content of a proposal and that content should align with the Dutch National Research Agenda. But whatever the organisational form of the research project, there should always be ample room for young talent.” 

This interview was first published in ICI bulletin 3, in November 2016.