Molecular geneticist Ronald Plasterk is one of the Netherlands' most highly cited researchers, publishing regularly in top journals in fashionable research fields such as regulation of gene expression by inhibitory RNAs. A lifelong member of the centre-left Labour party, he was last month named minister of research and universities in the country's new coalition government. He talked to Alison Abbott about how he ended up in this position.

How long have you been active in politics?

I was a member of the local council in Leiden in my student days, but then I went to do postdocs at the California Institute of Technology and the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. I started my family when I returned to the Netherlands, so I was only active in a marginal way. But in the past ten years or so I've been writing a weekly newspaper column and a commentary on TV, whose themes can be political. I also co-authored the Labour party's election platform.

What will being research minister mean for your research?

I hate to say it, but it will mean the end of research for me. At a meeting only a few weeks ago I was exchanging scientific views with Nobel prizewinners — you can't step out of this level of research for four years and then hope to go back. It's not yet clear whether I will be able to retain my professorship.

How do you feel about that?

Ronald Plasterk believes that his political appointment spells the end of his research career. Credit: R. CREMERS/HOLLANDSE HOOGTE

I feel like Alice, stepping through the mirror into another, slightly unreal, world. I feel a little disconnected right now, but the people in my lab will not suffer. They will be taken care of by others in the institute.

What are the key issues for science in the Netherlands?

Europe is losing ground — compared with the United States, for example, from which we have a lot to learn in terms of meritocracy and researcher mobility. Holland is not so bad actually, but it could be, and needs to be, better. The academic system must become less hierarchical. The number of women in top science jobs is embarrassingly low, among the worst in Europe.

How can scientific quality be improved?

Ask yourself why so many top physicists, including three Nobel prizewinners, ended up in Leiden 100 years ago? Or at the Cavendish laboratories in Cambridge? There is no blueprint for quality — top scientists will go where they can work best. We just need to provide sufficient funding to allow centres of excellence to emerge from within the community. And there is in fact more money for research foreseen in the government plan.