Future Priorities of the Dutch Knowledge Sector: the way forward!

25 January 2011

The members of the Association Neth-ER, representatives from the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW) , representatives from the Ministry of Economic Affairs Agriculture and Innovation (EL&I) and from the Dutch Permanent Representation to the European Union (PV NL EU) came together to discuss the future priorities of the Dutch knowledge sector.

During the session the priorities of the members of Neth-ER were collectively positioned as threefold.

  • Youth on the Move / Lifelong Learning Programme 2 (LLP2)
  • Innovation Union / Eighth Framework Programme for research and technology development (FP8)
  • Reduction of administrative burdens.

The meeting progressed with a summary update from each of the nine members of Neth-ER with regards to identifying their respective priorities in the areas of Education, Research and Innovation. Each of the member organisations identified their respective priorities as follows. The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), amongst other aspects, appreciate in particular to establish convergence by means of aiming at the differentiation of mission and through mobility that is aimed at quality instead of quantity. With regard to research, the VSNU expressed the opinion that the quality of scientists should be enhanced, turning them into multinational researchers and teachers. The Netherlands organization for international cooperation in higher education (Nuffic) agreed with the issues put forward by the VSNU and added that the creation of a European Higher Education Area should also lead to the portability of financing instruments.

Consequently, the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) put their thoughts on the table by arguing that FP8 and the Innovation Union play an important role for the freedom of movement for researchers. In addition, they value the existence of key enabling technologies, the European Research Council (ERC) and acknowledge the salience of connecting the ‘grand challenges’ to thematic priorities. The University Medical Centers of the Netherlands (NFU) followed by agreeing upon the issues of TNO and the VSNU, but also noted that the European Innovation Partnerships (EIPs) are an integral part of realising the Innovation Union. Next up was the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), who believe that science for science is an essential element for a workable research and innovation arena. In addition, innovation should be looked  (upon) as covering the full spectrum, which also means that within thematic priorities, there should be sufficient room for fundamental research. The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) agreed with the issues identified by the VSNU, NFU, KNAW and TNO, yet stated, in addition, that through the work of the European Heads of Research Councils (EUROHORCs), the effectiveness of Europe as a research area can be strengthened. Next to this, NWO emphasised the importance of maintaining the joint programming initiatives (JPIs).

The Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences (HBO-raad) stated that mobility is of great importance, as is the acquisition of skills , especially for people being able to move freely across borders. Moreover, the HBO-raad believes that something should be done against the innovation gap, which hopefully can be tackled through FP8 and the further extension of the so-called ‘triple helix’. The European Platform then stated that they will focus on excellent education concepts and that mobility should be carried out in a structural way. In addition, the emphasis was on regional partnerships with, for example, the vocational education and training sector and creating more structure within Grundtvig. Finally, the Dutch Council for Vocational Training and Adult Education (MBO Raad) expressed that one should not underestimate the ‘innovation power’ of vocational education and training.

Consequently, OCW, EL&I and PV NL EU provided their additional comments and agreed upon the issues and interest put forward by the members of Neth-ER. Adjacent to their statements, a summary listing of the collective priorities was then compiled and is outlined as follows:

  • differentiate the missions of the institutions;
  • differentiate the mobility missions;
  • strengthen the skills development at a regional level;
  • continue the work of the ERC and the European Institute for Innovation and Technology (EIT);
  • arrangements for applied research;
  • connect the ‘grand challenges’ and thematic priorities;
  • further development of the research infrastructures;
  • smart specialisation;
  • create synergies;
  • continuity versus originality;
  • reduction of administrative burdens.

The president of Neth-ER, Frans van Vught, proposed to the meeting participants to further summarise the priorities into three framework programmes that are outlined below.  An offline discussion took place among designated stakeholders in order to complete this exercise. Frans van Vught proposed three different clusters:

  1. modernising education systems and institutions, which is among other aspects focused at quality and transparency in education;
  2. setting up a research and innovation framework, covering renewal packages, of which the RAAK scheme is exemplary;
  3. establishing a regional development framework, focused on the Competiveness and Innovation Programme (CIP), small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and Structural funds (SF), offering a ‘stairway to excellence’.

These frameworks cover both the education sector and the research sector and places overall emphasis on innovation.

Subsequently, for the second part of the meeting, some high profile people from  the European Commission (EC) were invited to join the Dutch knowledge sector and the Ministries. Director-general Robert-Jan Smits of the Directorate-general (DG) Research and Innovation (RTD) and Peter Dröll of DG Enterprises and Industry (ENTR) were present to give their opinions and insights on the different interests put forward and topics discussed during the first part of the meeting. Unfortunately, director-general Jan Truszczynski of DG Education and Culture (EAC) was delayed.

Robert-Jan Smits first stated that the Strategy for employment and growth (Europe2020) is all about research and innovation. Following this general remark, he went into depth on a couple of issues:

  • Research to Market: “When we talk about linking research to innovation, we are not talking about investing more in applied research, we are talking about linking research to the market” In making reference to the Innovation Union which is about creating favourable conditions to enable the research to market strategy; Robert-Jan Smits emphasised the very important role which the ‘hogescholen’ in the Netherlands can play in helping to establish the links between research and innovation. 
  • EU Patent: Robert-Jan Smits made reference to the EU Patent and mentioned that there is now a willing coalition to work on the EU Patent. He was also well informed that the Netherlands are very much in favour of the EU Patent.
  • Public Procurement: Public procurement accounts for 17% of the GDP in EU, and this needs to be more effectively pursued. In addition, Peter Dröll addressed the meeting participants with reference to ‘Speed, Scale and Specialisation’. He emphasised that innovation systems are not only about research driven initiatives but also about business innovation. 86 billion euros is the budget but only part of which has been spent; therefore part of what is over can be used for procurement. 
  • Standardisation Process in Europe: The standardisation process in Europe was introduced by Robert-Jan Smits as being essential to the competitive industry. With regards to standardisation, this needs to be set by Industry consortia.
  • Streamlining of Instruments: Robert-Jan Smits expressed that it would be efficient to streamline the existing instruments EIT, CIP & FP programmes into one framework and to have common IT platforms.
  • ERC: The ERC will clearly continue as a means to reinforce the science base. Clear agenda setting and priority setting with the member states is key. Researchers should decide on the topics.
  • Structural Funds: There are huge opportunities within the Structural funds: 350 billion euros over 7 years. The Commission would like to deploy these funds for ‘better use’. They wish to move to a better and more structured use of these funds. Reference was made to the term ‘Smart Specialisation’. Reference was also made to the Framework Programme and Structural Funds working group chaired by Frans van Vught - the so-called Synergies Group - with the primary objective to understand what the synergies are and could be between the different programmes.
  • Smart fiscal consolidation: Robert-Jan Smits stated that when taking into account the agenda of the European Council, fiscal consolidation should also cover smart fiscal consolidation. This means that “you cut where you need to cut, invest where you need to invest”. According to Robert-Jan Smits, there is too little spending on the knowledge triangle in Europe.

Finally, Robert-Jan Smits proposed three pillars that are of salience for the future strategic framework programmes:

  1. strengthening the science base (Marie Curie, ERC);
  2. coalition of the willing to address the grand societal challenges;
  3. common strategy on science for competitiveness – industry should take the lead here.

To close the meeting Robert-Jan Smits recommended to the Dutch knowledge sector to ‘’conglomerate at national level’’, in order to upscale and to become stronger while interacting with the EU.

Frans van Vught then closed the high level meeting, after which the annual reception of Neth-ER took place. Around 160 people attended the reception, both from the Dutch knowledge institutions and from the informal Brussels network of Neth-ER. See you next year!

by Yvonne Mulcahy, Charlotte Geerdink, Sebastiaan den Bak en Fried Kramer

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