What struck you most when you first assumed your position here?
“Many researchers have close ties with the city – the local business community, the municipal government or NGOs in the city where they conduct research, where students come. I love that they have these strong ties. I was not expecting that.
“Conducting excellent research is important. But I think it’s also important to make an impact through research. To make a contribution towards solving societal challenges. Well, there are plenty of those in this city.”
We found the following sentence on your LinkedIn profile: ‘He is passionate about taking science to the frontline where it matters most’. What do you mean by that?
“Take my field, for instance – developmental psychopathology. I am interested in atypical development in children and adolescents, and particularly in how to help them by means of prevention and intervention. I could carry out all sorts of studies, but I want my research to be used in practice. In the last ten years, this has become as important to me as the research itself.”
Rutger Engels (born 1968) became Erasmus University’s Rector Magnificus on 15 June. He is also a Professor of Developmental Psychopathology. Prior to being appointed to the rectorship, he was the Chairman of the Executive Board of the Trimbos Institute of Mental Health and Addiction. He studied Psychology at Groningen University, got his doctorate from Maastricht University and worked at Radboud University Nijmegen, Utrecht University and – ‘very briefly’ – the University of Amsterdam. Engels and his family live in Zeist. His two eldest daughters are students.
Can you give us an example of studies you have conducted that were socially relevant?
“Among other things, I conducted research that helped raise the minimum age for the purchase of cigarettes and alcohol from 16 to 18, and I’m very proud of that. A few years ago I was awarded the Huibregtsen Prize, an award for solid research with social relevance, partly because of that study (Engels received the award in 2011 for his study on the early stages of addiction in adolescents – ed.).”
You like to emphasise the importance of impactful research. How do you intend to apply this to this university?
“Modern universities have three missions: teaching, research and creating an impact. To some extent, impact can be created through the students we train. Perhaps that is the greatest impact we have. I recently read a study about the supervisory boards of major Dutch companies. This university trained over thirty percent of the members of those boards. We produce more leaders in the business community than any other university, by a considerable margin. I think that’s quite unique.
“In addition, you can find people whose research is making an impact in all nooks and crannies of this university. Their research is having an impact on the city, on the region, on the country, and internationally. I just believe that we need to make greater use of that fact when we present ourselves to the world, and that we could do a better job of telling all our researchers, regardless of what stage of their career they are in, to focus more on that.”
Can you give us an example of a study like that?
“A little while ago I attended the ‘In Praise of Medicine at Erasmus MC’ event, where a spotlight was put on the achievements of the Department of Virology. At this department, lots of people work with cells in labs, while at the same time developing predictive models to check whether virus outbreaks can be predicted. They also work with the World Health Organization a lot.”
Does science have to make an impact by definition?
“Science always has an impact, on the person engaging in the science if not on others. Moreover, sometimes you just don’t know how relevant your study will turn out to be. There have obviously been cases in which scientists spent years conducting laboratory research whose results weren’t applied until much later.
“So science definitely shouldn’t be reduced to generating an impact. There must be enough room for research that is driven by curiosity, without the need for impact measurements. Moreover, I feel that you can only create an impact if you conduct high-quality research. This is not an either/or situation. You need both.”
How do you measure whether science is making an impact?
“That is one of the questions we will discuss at a conference on impact I’m co-organising, to be held in November. We need to choose a model that allows us to measure impact and give us decent scores. It’s no use for us to measure our impact purely by the number of patents we are awarded, because Erasmus University will do quite poorly by that yardstick, since we don’t offer degrees in STEM subjects. So we’ll have to select the parameters within which we seek to excel. In the long run, this will have to be part of our human resource policies. Because if you ask people to present themselves in a certain light, you must reward them for doing so too.”
Can you name any parameters you think are important?
“I don’t really want to go into this before the conference. The number of spin-offs might be one of them. Entrepreneurship is obviously part of this university’s DNA. We attract students because of it, so we need to promote it to the best of our ability. Creating an impact may relate to the social field, to society, but it also relates to starting up businesses.”
Scientists are expected to publish, teach and now create an impact too. Do they need to work longer hours? Do they need to work differently?
“I’m not quite sure of that yet. We can ask researchers – particularly the more senior ones among them – to present themselves more to the public, and then reward them for doing so. I talk to all sorts of professors about the projects they undertake in the city, about their appearances in the media, their conversations with stakeholders, et cetera. These things are under-assessed in performance appraisals.”
Many academics are working far too hard already. We recently had the #WOinActie action week to raise awareness of researchers’ workload. Mr Rector, can you – in your capacity as a father to all these scientists – give your folks some reassurance? Or should they be very worried, considering your level of ambition?
“I’m a psychologist by training. I used to work at an institute whose focus is on mental health. I find this an interesting field of study, and I joined that institute because mental health is a subject after my own heart. I certainly don’t mean to contribute to raising scientists’ workload or level of overloading. I wish to arrive at a proper and workable model, designed in consultation with scientists.
“The same is true for students, by the way. Students’ level of mental strain is a hot topic at the moment. For instance, we wish to hire more student psychologists, because the ones we have at this university are very busy. We’re also appointing a psychologist for PhD students. But prevention matters too. At present, students tend not to see psychologists until they are already quite overloaded. We are currently working on a plan to help these students by phone, or even through blended learning tools online.”
Why is it that students are experiencing such a high level of mental strain?
“Naturally, students are going through a formative period, during which they grow. For many of them it will be the first time they’re away from home. Some of these young people will feel the effects, particularly when they experience something unpleasant. They will become depressed or suffer anxiety.
“And obviously we now have an education system in which students have to take out loans. I have two daughters who are studying, so I’ve seen for myself that these student loans put pressure on students. Students constantly feel they have to perform well. If they fail a few subjects, they’ll get deeper into debt.”
The Minister for Education blames the binding study advice for the mental strain students are experiencing. Do you think the Rotterdam system of requiring first-year students to pass all their subjects in one year in order to be allowed to continue their studies is adding to this strain?
“No. There are no signs that our system is resulting in increased pressure on students. The fact that students are experiencing pressure and overloading is mostly due to other factors. First of all, there’s the complexity of this information society: social media, young people who are glued to their phones, people are not getting enough sleep. And the second factor really is the new student loan system.
“Frankly, I think the binding study advice has all sorts of benefits. Students are told at an early stage that they are better off doing something else when it looks like they won’t make it. Which is resulting in improved graduation rates for us. Since students now have to take out loans, I think it is in their best interests too that they graduate quickly.”