The fund was established to allow for major one-off expenditures that will help the Netherlands earn money in the future. The establishment of the fund was predicated on the idea that if we inject capital into a few brave ventures, the Netherlands will be able to weather the storms of the future.
The Cabinet asked a committee made up of heavyweights to assess several grant applications, and its decisions were announced last Friday. For now, there will not be any grants for infrastructure-related projects, but those involved in scientific research have received some good news, and some people involved in education have as well.
A total of €646 million was allocated in this first round, €525 million of which was allocated conditionally. Nearly €3.5 billion will be kept in reserve, ‘pending more detailed proposals or proven success’, in the words of the advisory committee.
The committee predicts that not all the chosen projects will be successful. “Some projects may be more successful than expected, while others will be less successful than expected. What matters is that the portfolio as a whole will have a positive impact on sustainable growth.”
Applicants involved in research and innovation were the most successful. €121 million was awarded unconditionally to applicants whose proposals related to artificial intelligence, quantum computers and regenerative medicine featuring stem cell and gene therapy.
Furthermore, €400 million will be allocated provisionally, with the projects receiving the funding if they meet certain additional conditions. This includes two projects relating to national health data and hydrogen as a source of green energy. And on top that, €833 million will be ‘reserved’ for five projects, meaning that they may receive funding later.
Two education-related grant applications were awarded funding, but only subject to conditions: €45 million for lifelong learning and €80 million for better teaching involving IT. An application for ‘policy experiments’ in the education sector was not approved.
Lifelong learning is about the training employees receive in their later careers, allowing them to remain flexible and keep acquiring new knowledge. The applicants wish to develop an online training course database and experiment with special ‘learning recommendations’, for which they may (conditionally) receive millions of euros’ worth of funding. They also wish to make post-initial classes for government-funded students more flexible, but the committee feels they do not need a huge amount of funding for that.
The coronavirus pandemic has considerably accelerated the switch to online teaching, but online classes can probably be taught better than they currently are. The committee feels that a National Teaching Lab could contribute to that, so it, too, will receive conditional funding.
The infrastructure sector will not be granted any funding at all for now – not even conditionally. This may change later, though. For instance, the committee feels that extending Amsterdam’s North-South Metro Line to Schiphol Airport and Hoofddorp is a good idea, but does want the applicant to submit a better plan. Other ideas were rejected out of hand. The committee failed to see the huge benefit to be reaped from transport tubes, light rail transport or making rivers more easily navigable.
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The proposal selection committee is made up of the physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf, the President of Eindhoven University of Technology’s Executive Board Robert-Jan Smits and Maastricht University Rector Rianne Letschert.
The business community is represented as well: ING’s Chief Economist, ASML’s Chairman of the Board and DSM’s former Chairman of the Board are on the committee, as is Prince Constantijn. The committee is chaired by Jeroen Dijsselbloem, a former Minister of Finance representing the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA).
The committee had the proposals analysed by CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, which was asked to answer the following questions: is the government to get involved in this, will it really be lucrative, and will it make the entire population more prosperous? All sorts of experts were consulted as well.
One particularly notable proposal that was awarded funding is the one dealing with quantum computers, which are predicated on the idea that in the future, bits will not necessarily be 1 or 0 but can be both simultaneously, which would increase computers’ computing power by a huge margin. This type of research was dealt a considerable blow a little while ago when an article on a scientific breakthrough had to be retracted, as the existence of so-called majorana particles, which might result in stable quantum computers, turned out not to have been demonstrated after all. However, the development of such new computers does not depend on these particles only.
“This recommendation sets a high standard for subsequent rounds and in so doing guarantees that proposals funded by the National Growth Fund will actually help the Netherlands increase its ability to make money to the maximum extent possible,” the Ministers of Economic Affairs and Finance, Bas van ’t Wout and Wopke Hoekstra, stated.
The Dutch universities are happy with the funding they have been allocated, according to a press release by the Association of Universities in the Netherlands, VSNU. “In this decision, we can see the leverage effect in action, with public investment also attracting new private investment,” VSNU chair Pieter Duisenberg stated.
Previously, EUR Chairman of the Board Ed Brinksma said in an interview with Financieel Dagblad that he was not very happy with the proposals selected by the Growth Fund. “The criteria used to allocate funding from the Growth Fund are overly focused on technological innovation,” Erasmus University’s president told the newspaper in February. “We must look harder at how society as a whole will profit.” Moreover, he fears that the funding may be snapped up by ‘a handful of clever entrepreneurs’ if the fund’s requirements are not revised.
At the same time, he argued in favour of a capital injection into academia, stating that universities’ regular funding is €1.1 billion short of what they need. However, that is not really relevant to these one-off capital injections made by the National Growth Fund.
So what about the projects that were rejected, such as an application entitled ‘Food switch’? The universities ‘are sorry’ that this decision was made, but do not wish to dwell on it. They also do not mind the fact that the funding allocated to the lifelong learning project is conditional: “Together we will work on new, properly substantiated plans, making hard choices together.”
- Parliamentary motions on the basic student grant have been left out of consideration; the coalition has voted as one block on these motions in recent years ↩︎