Openness, trust and responsibility were the key words used by all three speakers during the opening of the academic year on Monday 1 September. This official opening, which was attended by King Willem-Alexander, also marked the conclusion of the anniversary year.

In her opening speech, Executive Board President Pauline van der Meer Mohr said that today’s universities can no longer get away with the bromide ‘just trust us, we know what we’re doing’. And rightly so, she added, although at the same time, universities are consequently trapped in the paradox that they are achieving better results all the time and can hold their own with the best the world has to offer, while having to be increasingly accountable and comply with quality standards at the same time. “But we also need autonomy, since this is a more productive way of attaining excellence than government control,” Ms Van der Meer Mohr said.

Dutch Paradox

Guest speaker Hans Clevers, president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, also emphasised in his speech that the government’s demand for research with immediate and tangible results will not result in innovation. “Although a top-down approach is suitable for applied research, truly innovative changes cannot be achieved through improving existing products,” Mr Clevers said. “The greatest innovations are the result of normal research carried out by creative and vigorous minds with a profound interest in humanity, nature and the world about us.”

And that is exactly what the Netherlands is good at. Although funding for research is diminishing rapidly, Dutch scientists’ output is actually increasing. This is known internationally as the ‘Dutch Paradox’. According to Mr Clevers’ analysis, Dutch people have an inquiring mind and they are not afraid to ask questions or enter into discussion with others.

Mr Clevers then asked his listeners: “Why should we make cutbacks in something we’re so much better at than almost every other country – something that’s so deeply rooted in our DNA? Why can’t we just admit frankly that science is one of our national talents? If it’s about football, we’re only too happy to say we’re better than everyone else!”

Open culture

On this note, Rector Magnificus Huib Pols officially opened the academic year after calling on his fellow scholars to uphold the motto ‘Strength from Openness’. Scholars not only have to be autonomous professionals, they also have to be team players, Mr Pols added. “We do this by actively seeking out one another, and by giving one another criticism as well as support. As far as I’m concerned, this open culture is crucial for ensuring progress.” WG