18 november 2019

Van Rijn and all that

I have repeatedly stated that the only way that we are going to effectively address the complex real-world problems that we face is to collaborate, and to integrate diverse perspectives, expertise, and viewpoints to achieve sustainable and durable solutions. During our Dies Natalis I mentioned that I think this is one of our greatest strengths as a university – the manner in which we work together across boundaries – be they disciplinary, between faculties, or indeed between universities.

Every day at the VU I come across examples of inspiring collaborations that integrate very different fields and approaches. Our recently awarded Gravitation grants are prime examples of this sort of fruitful interaction; the program on Hybrid Intelligence led by Frank van Harmelen envisages close cooperation between computer scientists, linguists, and psychologists on our campus alone, let alone the collaborations across the nation. Last week’s symposium on Water in times of Climate Change is another case in point. It brought together religious leaders, theologians, earth and climate scientists, economists, and policy makers to think about the various manifestations of water – its life-giving, cleansing, and threatening dimensions.

The academic community has long come to realize that it is precisely through multidisciplinary research and education that we can address the most compelling scientific problems and societally relevant issues. Solving the ‘wicked problems’ means celebrating the richness of all the academic disciplines, and investing in the interfaces between disciplines. This is investing in the future. Sadly, all of this is in stark contrast to recent developments in our higher education landscape, where the political climate seems to be polarizing disciplines and playing institutions against each other, embodied in the effects of the report, ‘Wissels om’, of the Van Rijn committee earlier this year on the financing of higher education and research. What is striking about the underlying logic of this report is that it focuses on higher education as a zero-sum game, and has a traditional, monodisciplinary view of science as its starting point. This logic is completely at odds with how we, the academic community, increasingly work.

It’s not over yet, and we will continue to make our voices heard in The Hague, and in the run up to the next elections. We need sustained and durable investments in higher education to achieve the ambitions of this country to be a knowledge economy. And that’s not going to happen if we don’t invest in all disciplines – not just in science and technology.

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