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Prof. Thom Palstra: ‘Putting too much emphasis on innovation will damage science and eventually the economy’

13 July 2011

The funding of the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials and NOVA, top research schools, will be continued, State Secretary for Education, Culture and Science Halbe Zijlstra announced on 1 July. In these times of cutbacks, that is good news for the institutes. However, Prof. Thom Palstra, scientific director of the Zernike Institute, is still worried. ‘I am delighted for these two research schools. However, in the long term this cabinet’s focus on innovation will damage top research – and thus eventually the Dutch economy as well.’

The Zernike Institute and NOVA are undoubtedly two of the world’s best research schools. Last year, the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials appeared in ninth place on the Times Higher Education global ranking list of institutes for materials research. The Groningen research school was ahead of universities such as Princeton, Stanford and Cambridge. In an evaluation by NWO, the Zernike Institute and NOVA were both given the predicate ‘exemplary’. State Secretary Zijlstra has rewarded this by continuing the funding of the institutes. The other four recognized top research schools will have to compete once more in a wide competition to secure their funding.

Focus on quick results will damage economy

Thom Palstra is aware of the privileged position of his research school. ‘But Dutch research as a whole is internationally of very high level’, he states. ‘Which is no coincidence – advice from NWO, KNAW and AWT in recent decades has played an important role in this.’ The scientific policy has been very successful. Palstra can understand that the cabinet wants to limit its expenditure, but the ‘extreme emphasis on innovation’ of this cabinet is causing him concern. ‘If you want to assess universities on short-term returns, then you won’t be doing them justice, and in the long term you’ll damage not only the research but also the economy.’

Innovation slowing down

The Zernike Institute researches the fundamental characteristics of materials. Many studies of nanoparticles, superconductivity and magnetism are conducted at an abstract level. Such research results in revolutionary materials in the long term. From kidney stone crushers to computer processors – without fundamental research they could not have been developed. Palstra: ‘The innovation to which our cabinet attaches so much importance relies heavily on fundamental research. If you cut back now on fundamental research and transfer that money to goal-oriented budgets, you are reducing the innovative capacity ten to twenty years down the line.’

Indirect damage

His own research school may be coming out of this cutback round unscathed and be able to continue to conduct fundamental research unabated, but cutbacks elsewhere in the university system will also have a negative influence on the Zernike Institute. Palstra: ‘It goes without saying that we don’t operate in a vacuum; our researchers had to be trained somewhere. Cutbacks elsewhere will therefore also affect top institutes.’ The focus on student success rates will also affect the quality of research in the end, thinks the professor. ‘We really should enable students to develop a wide range of talents.’

Call to the cabinet

Compared to the cutbacks being introduced elsewhere in Europe, Dutch research, according to Palstra, has not come off that badly. Nevertheless, he is concerned with the future of the university system, and the value that the cabinet is attaching to the standpoints of Dutch universities. ‘Universities are of crucial importance for society’, comments the professor. ‘You would expect a cabinet to listen more closely to the standpoints of such institutions than they currently appear to be doing.’  

Curriculum Vitae

Thom Palstra (1958) is professor of solid state chemistry at the University of Groningen. His specialisms are magnetism, conductivity and superconductivity and crystalline structures. Alongside his work as a professor, Palstra is Scientific Director of the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials and since May 2010 a member of KNAW. Palstra studied in Leiden, where he also gained his PhD, and worked as a postdoc and member of the technical staff of Bell Laboratories in New Jersey (USA).

Last modified:13 September 2018 11.44 a.m.

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