Visit by Members of Parliament highlights interdisciplinary research and collaboration
High-quality education, research involving multiple faculties, collaboration between universities and central government funding to make all this possible: these were the topics covered in a working visit of the Standing Committee for Education, Culture and Science (OCW) to the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) on 28 June – with Leiden University as the setting.
The Committee delegates were the MPs Hatte van der Woude (VVD), Habtamu de Hoop (PvdA) and Harm Beertema (PVV). Annetje Ottow, President of Leiden University’s Executive Board, brought them up-to-date with a report on an eventful coronavirus year.
‘Covid has clearly been a real concern, and every day we have worked to ensure the wellbeing of our students. Yet at the same time the crisis has greatly accelerated the digitisation process at our University.’
Ottow also spoke about the groundbreaking research conducted at Leiden University in areas such as drug development and artificial intelligence. The latter is one of the fields where successful collaboration takes place within the strategic alliance of Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Universities, an initiative of the three universities in South Holland.
‘Despite the coronavirus crisis, most students gained their required credits; because what else could you do, apart from study?’ - Pieter Duisenberg
Even though coronavirus had a serious impact on universities and especially on students, Pieter Duisenberg, President of the VSNU, wanted people to see – or rather hear – another side of the story; he played an audio clip of partying young people, recorded by his daughter (a student) while celebrating the re-opening of nightclubs last Friday. ‘Despite the coronavirus crisis, most students gained their required credits, because what else could you do, apart from study?’ This also constituted an appeal to the MPs to ensure that students did not become the first ‘victim’ if restrictive measures have to be imposed again (because of a potential new wave of coronavirus) in the autumn.
More funding for higher education on a structural basis
But coronavirus is certainly not the only challenge facing Dutch universities. The high workload of researchers and lecturers, ever-growing numbers of students and insufficient central government funding are just a few of the other challenges identified by Duisenberg. He would like to see the Netherlands spending three percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on higher education on a structural basis. ‘To use a cycling metaphor: we’re currently in the peloton of two percent GDP. There’s a gap to the group of countries at the front, like America, Germany and Japan, and we mustn’t miss the chance to keep up with them. That would be disastrous for the quality of our universities.’
Together with more funding on a structural basis, the MPs were also asked to give Dutch university administrators more money to manage the intake of students, including international students. ‘If we accept everyone but don’t receive any additional funds, the quality is bound to suffer,’ said Martijn Ridderbos (Vice-President of the Executive Board). ‘We’re under a great deal of pressure.’
‘Young researchers in particular are experiencing a very high workload, because they still have to prove themselves’ - Annemarie Samuels
A few smaller group meetings offered more scope for the MPs to have a personal discussion with students, researchers and lecturers. For instance, medical anthropologist Annemarie Samuels spoke about her research on palliative care in different parts of the world. This research project is largely a collaboration of young researchers from different disciplines.
‘Young researchers in particular are experiencing a very high workload, because they still have to prove themselves,’ said Samuels. The VVD MP then asked her to make that workload more specific with a number. ‘We’re required to spend 70 percent of our time on teaching but it often turns out to be more, so in many cases the research has to be done in the evenings and weekends.’ Another discussion was led by two students who spoke about their academic year in the time of coronavirus, while a third discussion was about the collaboration within the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Universities alliance.
Collaboration at the Leiden Bio Science Park
The focus was again on collaboration during a short coach tour of the Leiden Bio Science Park, where companies and the University’s researchers and students are successfully working together on research and e.g. drug development. ‘It’s a tremendous economic driver for the region, and the Science Park has continued to grow as normal during the coronavirus crisis,’ said Hester Bijl, Rector Magnificus.
The Science Park is also home to the Faculty of Science, where a guided tour on foot was next on the agenda. The MPs received further explanation from professors Hubertus Irth and Micha Drukker about the innovative research on stem cell therapies. Professor Jan Aarts then gave more details of the research on quantum technology and showed them the ‘most stable microscope in the world’, developed by the University and located in a specially constructed vibration-free hall.
The interdisciplinary character of Leiden University was emphasised over lunch, when the visiting MPs were given mini-lectures on some of its special interdisciplinary research programmes. Professor Marieke Liem spoke about her research on transgressive behaviour and described how young people are involved in this research. For instance, social scientists are looking at the resilience of young people who have experienced specific kinds of transgressive behaviour; archaeologists involved in the project are researching how boundaries were set in the distant past; and Leiden Law School researchers are studying how transgressive behaviour is defined in law.
‘The coronavirus vaccines were developed so quickly because a lot of artificial intelligence was used, for example in creating models’ - Aske Plaat
There is also a great deal of interdisciplinary research in the area of artificial intelligence (AI), said Professor Aske Plaat, one of the initiators of the SAILS (Society, Artificial Intelligence and Life Sciences) research programme. This programme is a collaboration between all seven of Leiden University’s faculties. ‘The coronavirus vaccines were developed so quickly because a lot of artificial intelligence was used, for example in creating models,’ explained Plaat. ‘But you can also see that AI is now starting to play a greater role in the social sciences, where an enormous move is taking place towards data conversion.’
Restoring biodiversity in the polder
Professor of Environmental Sustainability, Jan Willem Erisman, spoke about the interdisciplinary research project ‘Liveable Communities - Liveable Planet’. In the Vrouw Vennepolder area of South Holland, a citizens’ cooperative bought a piece of land. Research will be conducted there over the next ten years on restoring biodiversity, also examining which types of agriculture are possible in the area.
Finally, Martijn Ridderbos emphasised that the Executive Board wants to maintain its support for interdisciplinary research. ‘We’re therefore going to make 20 million euros available for it out of our own reserves over the next four years. But we’re also hoping that this funding will come from sources outside the University.’
Text: Tim Senden
Photos: Marc de Haan