Published online 15 September 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.540

News

Netherlands pushes for innovation

But some researchers are anxious about minister's plan to boost private investment.

Utrecht UniversityThe basic research budget of Dutch universities has been dwindling, with the University of Utrecht (pictured) due to close its 370-year-old astronomy institute.Raph2009/Wikipedia

The Netherlands wants to become one of the world's top five knowledge economies by 2020, according to a plan presented to Dutch parliament this week. The strategy, which focuses heavily on boosting private investment in research and innovation, has some Dutch scientists worried that fundamental research will lose out.

At present, the country invests 1.8% of its gross domestic product in research and development (R&D). Speaking before the Dutch parliament on 13 September, Maxime Verhagen, Minister of Economic Affairs, Innovation and Agriculture, outlined a plan that would increase that investment to 2.5% by 2020.

Verhagen says past subsidy schemes have led to Dutch R&D relying heavily on public funding, and he wants to increase the contribution made by industry.

The government has identified nine key sectors in the Dutch economy — life sciences, energy, water, chemicals, horticulture, food agriculture, high-technology materials and systems, logistics and creative industries — and allocated a total of €1.3 billion (US$1.8 billion) of the 2012 national budget to these sectors. The government plans to increase the allocation to €2 billion in 2015. Parts of the existing budgets of research-funding agencies are included in the funding specification.

The money will fund venture capital, innovation loans and tax deductions for companies investing in R&D in the targeted sectors. The government has also formed committees with representatives from government, industry and knowledge institutions and asked them to clinch 'innovation deals' — public–private partnerships in which industry must contribute a minimum of 40% of R&D funding — by the end of this year.

Mixed reviews

"This is serious," says Emmo Meijer, chairman of the committee for food agriculture and innovation. "There is a common understanding that something has to change in the Dutch economy, and this plan requires real commitment by industry." He considers the plan a positive move that has been made with sufficient consultation.

But some people fear that the new plan means less money for basic research. Sijbolt Noorda, president of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands, says it is another example of funding cuts from the conservative government that came to power last year. Noorda says that over the past three years, the annual basic-research budget of Dutch universities has been eroded by roughly 8% — around €200 million — by the previous and current governments.

“The pressure to focus on these sectors may leave little room for curiosity-driven research.”

Wim van Saarloos
Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter

"When money is more scarce, universities have to make tough choices", says Noorda, citing as one visible example the planned closure, in 2015, of the 370-year-old Astronomical Institute at the University of Utrecht.

Starting this year, Dutch universities will be fined €3,000 a year for each student who stays at university more than one year beyond the standard study plan; those students will have to contribute an additional €3,000.

"The government wants the knowledge sector to rely less on public money," says Noorda, "But lessons from the past show that they are naïve to hope the private sector will provide a substitute."

Some people think the government's intent to focus on innovation implies a change in the motivations driving Dutch science. "It's a shift in emphasis that will see research directly influenced by the private sector," says Jos Engelen, chairman of the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), the largest research-funding agency in the country.

Bart Rijs, a spokesman for Verhagen, says the amount of money available for basic research will not change. Still, some scientists are worried that funding agencies will be compromised in their decisions on which research to support.

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"This pressure to shift most of funding agencies' budgets to focus on these sectors may leave little room for curiosity-driven fundamental research," says Wim van Saarloos, director of the Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter (FOM), which is part of NWO.

Engelen expects that, in 2015, €275 million — approximately half of the NWO's budget — will be earmarked for the key sectors, an amount he says the NWO would spend on such research anyway. His top priority is that the agency's funding decisions remain driven by research quality. "So far it looks like we will be able to retain our standards," he says. "We have made it clear to the government that we will only sign up to the innovation deals if this is the case." 

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