Science 09 February 2023

'Without collaboration with businesses, you miss out on many opportunities'

To get funding, researchers have to collaborate a lot: with one another, with companies and also internationally. During a Dutch Research Council (NWO) meeting it became evident that this can lead to all sorts of problems, but still: “There’s enough money for everyone.”

“The demonstrators have left everything neat and tidy”, jokes journalist and moderator Lucella Carasso. “Generally the riot police have to do it.” This is a reference to the recent occupation of two boardrooms at Eindhoven University of Technology in protest against the university’s ties with the fossil fuel sector.

Around 40 people attend the NWO debate. The central question is how the national funder of academic research can stimulate more collaboration. The discussion expands into a whole range of sensitive topics, which are mentioned briefly below.

No cancel culture

Take the collaboration with the fossil fuel industry, which the occupiers in Eindhoven were protesting against. Questions about that collaboration need to be put higher on the agenda, says Yvonne van der Meer, Professor of Sustainability of Chemicals and Materials at Maastricht University. But severing the links, as the students are demanding? “I’m not really in favour of the cancel culture. Fossil fuel companies need to reinvent themselves and universities can help them do so.”

That is music in the ears of Bart Smolders, dean of the Electrical Engineering Faculty. He nods in agreement, adding: “That’s right, it isn’t so black and white. For example, we’re working with Shell on the development of green hydrogen; students are very interested in that.”

Collaborate with companies

What about collaboration with companies in general? Shouldn’t scientists always be independent? In that case, researchers would miss a lot of opportunities, according to NWO chair Marcel Levi. “At a major producer of chip-making equipment like ASML they are now investing in a department for independent basic research. Scientists there are involved in research that might result in product development only after 15 years.”

Smolders confirms that and has been aware of it for many years: companies have increasingly large research departments that are collaborating with universities and startups on long-term projects. (In fact, it became known the following day that Philips is going to cut back considerably on its research.)

On your guard

‘Three cheers for collaboration’, was the general feeling; but it was not unanimous. Scientists need to remain on their guard, Van der Meer warns. Panel member Marcel Geurts from chip producer NXP, which is collaborating widely with Eindhoven University of Technology, endorses that view. Some NXP chips have ended up unwittingly in Russian weapons. “We cannot always predict where our chips will go.”

It is a matter of being careful, says Smolders, who is himself a professor in antenna technology. “The Chinese company Huawei is interested in my research into 6G technology. When I talk with Chinese colleagues, I discuss only the basic steps behind the research, not confidential details.”

Levi confirms that NWO is becoming increasingly aware of the tension between transparent science and the potential risks. “But they are not opposites. In large areas of science there is no ‘knowledge security aspect’.”

“NWO doesn’t comment on what companies a university may or may not collaborate with”, he adds. “But we assume that no right-minded researcher will collaborate with a tobacco manufacturer.”

Forced consortium

The discussion proceeds in such a friendly manner that you could easily have forgotten how sensitive these topics are. Take the requirements that Europe sets for research projects. All those requirements have inadvertent effects, Smolders explains: “As the amount of money available nationally is limited, for a large project you are more likely to look for collaboration with someone from Greece in order to get EU funding. That forces you into an international consortium that actually exists only on paper and in which scientists draw up their own plans independently of one another.”

Van der Meer agrees. “Collaboration ought to be more than just everyone counting on a pile of money.” In her view, fledgling researchers in particular get lost in poorly defined projects.

Levi sympathises with that view: “It has become extremely complicated. When you make an application, you have to match with researchers from three countries. There has to be x percent of this and y percent of that and the funding comes from different sources. Various authorities want to know what is going on in the project. All in all, it sometimes defeats its own purpose.”

‘Perceived competition’

So does this result in a high workload and unnecessary competition? Well, everything will work out in the end. Levi praises the increasing collaboration between universities via sector plans. “That wouldn’t have happened ten years ago.”

There is still competition between scientists, Levi argues, “but it’s generally only perceived competition. And I think that there is now far less competition between scientists, when you look at it in the cold light of day. After all, there’s actually enough for everyone. Enough money for everyone. Enough social questions for everyone. So why would you want to engage in destructive competition?”

Enough money for everyone? No resentment or irritation arose. Thanks were given to the panel members and the meeting was adjourned.

Translation: Taalcentrum-VU


IMAGE: Keming Tan va Unsplash


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