Recently a student asked me a question that took me by surprise. “Who pays for this research and why?” she asked. She touched upon a sensitive topic: science is under financial pressure because virtually all research is funded by competitive research grants. Since last year a new funding scheme has become available: the Dutch National Research Agenda (NWA). In the public debate the NWA has been criticized for providing very large sums of money to only a few. The latest calls resulted in success rates of 5% and 7%. I agree, but here I like to tell a different story.
I like the NWA because it provides a fresh perspective on the relation between science and society. Popular distrust in science and a political climate that dismisses science as propaganda show that it is a relation we need to nurture. I think this is exactly what the NWA aims to do by involving society throughout the entire scientific process from research question to implementation. Before the NWA, the research questions were determined by scientists looking for knowledge, by companies searching for profit or by government aiming at societal benefit. This resulted in a pretty unidirectional relationship in which science had to provide something for society. In the NWA, everyone in The Netherlands was asked to submit questions. Among the 11700 questions there were many questions based on curiosity. For instance: “how and why do animals what they do?” and “Is the universe a computer and is there a programmer?” A small group of scientists shaped the questions into themes (called ‘routes’) These routes again invited society to provide feedback on the proposed research. That may sound like just another administrative box to tick. But I visited some of these events and a critical panel of youngsters definitely reshaped the debate on using technology to monitor school progress.
Now, the dialogue between science and society is stimulated by funding large consortia that involve different types of societal partners and reserving 5% budget to science communication. My project was rejected because I had not discussed my question with societal partners. Yes, that was another box to tick on the list of things that help me receive funding but aren’t part of the traditional activities as a scientist. And reading in the NRC that especially women would find something more fun to do, did make me rethink how to write this column. But in my research as a psychologist, involving society along the way has benefited me a lot. Involving society has added a sense of meaning to my work. It shows me how my experiments translate to the complexity of real life. It has taught me how to talk about my research in words that also scientists in other disciplines understand. This has resulted in new questions and collaborations.
I look forward to my new multidisciplinary research project in the NEMO Science Museum with a fellow AYA member. The project is funded by the AYA and wouldn’t have been possible if somewhere along my research career I wouldn’t have been stimulated to involve society. So am I declaring my love for something that traps me into eternal uncertainty about grant money and a myriad of tasks? I’m still in the middle so it’s difficult to tell. Eventually it’ll be both in the quality of the research and in the public opinion on science that the true success of the NWA is revealed.