By our editor
A petition about the war in Gaza has just landed on her desk. “I just saw this,” says Marileen Dogterom, president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Dozens of employees from several institutes affiliated with the KNAW, such as the Meertens Institute, the Rathenau Institute and the International Institute for Social History, are calling in that petition the Academy to speak out against the “genocide” in Gaza.
The timing is spot on. The KNAW has just published its own “manifesto”., with wishes for the formation of a new cabinet. With some urgent desires. Enough money for research and innovation (the 3 percent GNP that the previous government committed to). Protection of an international and open academic system. A safe environment for scientists, who are increasingly confronted with threats. Disclosing scientific knowledge in the interests of policy and society. All this under the heading Stronger for the society of the future. And: that society also has wishes.
In your manifesto, what is the biggest concern about the next government?
“Science was underfunded, which was also evident from international comparisons. The previous government took very good steps to correct this. We really want that to continue. But we must also continue to cherish our open, international reputation. The Netherlands has always played a guiding role in the scientific world. It is very important that we do not close the doors and withdraw.”
This socialization requires the Academy to speak out about the Gaza war, according to the petition. Why doesn't the KNAW do that?
“It is really a very difficult issue. We stand for science, for the academic community, our institutes such as the NIOD conduct their own research into genocide. But we are not a political organization. We are not there to tell you what foreign policy should look like. We can argue for an open debate, certainly.”
Employees at your own institutes are urging you to take a stand.
“I understand that. We have also received calls from the Israeli scientific community for support after October 7. Our counterpart in Germany, the Leopoldina Academy, has done that, we have not. We can call on our community to deal with this in an academically worthy manner. We could help with that. We are still considering it, the debate is also ongoing internally here. What we are going to do – and whether we are going to do anything – has not yet been determined.”
Students at the UvA say: we are being lectured about decolonization, so take it seriously.
“I understand that call, but I also understand what the Jewish community is saying. It is not our role to take sides here. It is really very difficult.”
The KNAW has spoken out about Ukraine and explicitly condemned the Russian invasion.
“That was at the proposal of the minister, who advised us to freeze cooperation with Russian institutions. We followed that call, although contact with individual scientists remains possible. There was also broad European consensus on this position among our sister organizations, but not in other parts of the world. You can try to reason it all as clearly as possible, but where you are in the world, who your neighbors are, that still has an influence.”
In your manifesto you mention another difficult issue, the screening of researchers from outside the EU, which the minister wants, but which you are against. That screening will be very limited, he assures.
“If it becomes a very short list of disciplines, we could quickly agree on it. We would then advocate screening everyone in those fields, not just researchers from outside the EU. That is feasible and easy to explain. But the draft lists that we have received from the ministry so far are not very short at all. So I'm not sure about that yet. We're not there yet.”
The KNAW also advocates a sustainability agenda. Do scientists have an extra responsibility in this regard? Fly less to conferences?
“Yes, I do feel an extra responsibility for that. After all, it is science that produces IPCC reports. We identify a problem. This also includes setting a good example as a scientist. At our research organizations we keep very precise records of how much travel is done and we monitor energy consumption. That is all on the agenda.”
Should travel be standardized, one conference per year?
“I'm not really into standards, because how do you determine that? Customization is required per discipline. The main point now is to make behavior more visible, to become aware of it and to point out our responsibility. I still fly myself, but I often consider whether this is necessary. Within Europe I only go by train, otherwise I do as much as possible online. Promotions with foreign experts can often also be done online.”
Animal testing is also a concern for you. Researchers complain about bureaucratization due to the strict rules of the Animal Testing Act. This is discouraging, they say.
“You have to keep looking for balance. We have made a lot of medical progress, partly thanks to animal testing. But I think it is right that very strict regulation is necessary, that is what society also demands. In the long term, animal testing can be replaced much more by computer simulations and organoids, but we are still far from that point.”
The intended ruling party PVV now criticizes 'left-wing' science and scientists.
“I cannot imagine that dismissing science in this way will become government policy. We live in a coalition country, fortunately.”
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