Role of private industry heads a number of issues that confront how science is put to work for society

Facing growing criticism, the Dutch are reviewing the way they fund and pursue science. In July, the Dutch Advisory Council for Science and Technology Policy (AWT) presented its study Food for thought, part of an ongoing series of comparative country studies. So far, findings suggest that the Netherlands might draw inspiration from the way Germany and the UK get private industry involved in science, turning research into tangible benefits for the public.

At the launch of the AWT study, Rob Hamer, chief of research and development at Unilever, urged the Dutch to learn from UK integration of science into society. Although the Dutch quantity-based system and the UK quality-based system result in similar research rankings, the Netherlands appears to lack a general consensus on the contribution R&D should make to society.

This report is playing out against a backdrop of government science cuts. Total government expenditure on research has fallen from just over €5.1 billion (£4 billion) in 2010 to nearly €4.7 billion in 2013. The Netherlands’ statistical office expects it to fall further to €4.4 billion by 2016, representing a slump in science funding as a proportion of GDP from 0.84% in 2010 to a mere 0.67% in 2016. The government’s ‘top sector’ policy, launched in 2012, targets nine areas in which Dutch science traditionally performed well in, including water, agriculture, chemistry and the life sciences, and it hopes private industry will be able to make up some of this funding shortfall.

By contrast with the Dutch system, the AWT report noted that UK research is partly rated on impact – be it economic, social or cultural. A strong ‘science for policy’ approach enables results to be used to design new evidence-based policies. In addition, the UK makes it much easier to start a small business, enabling innovative ideas to be given a chance. For every 10,000 citizens there are 10 start-ups in the UK. By contrast only three will be set up in the Netherlands and those will fail much sooner than their UK counterparts.

During the first of its country studies, the AWT praised Germany for its consistent commitment to innovation and its long-standing tradition of collaboration with private industry, which spends more than twice as much on R&D as Dutch companies.

The AWT report comes after a number of scandals rocked the Dutch science establishment, including that of Diederik Stapel, a professor of cognitive social psychology who made up or manipulated results in at least 55 publications. This led to public soul searching about the way the academic system operated in the Netherlands. Questions were raised about the way researchers were rewarded based on their number of publications. In addtion, the way universities are funded based on the number of graduates they train, gave rise to accusations universities were turning into ‘PhD factories’, unable to meet the needs of society.

Hamer was one of a number of chief technology officers (CTO) that sent a letter to the Dutch science and education minister earlier this year urging her to integrate science and innovation policies. Much like the concerned scientists of thinktank Science in Transition, the CTOs made a plea for multidisciplinary research that can tackle complex social issues, as well as action on the perverse incentives that are warping science. They call for new models of private–public partnerships that will allow companies to take a more active role in research.

Meanwhile, nearly a year after the scientific ‘rebels’ of Science in Transition first started making a noise they’re reasonably pleased with what’s been happening. While only a small step in changing the research culture, the new evaluation exercise for Dutch universities no longer focuses so heavily on productivity, and more ways of verifying integrity and social impact have been introduced.