future view

“We can only solve societal issues using an integrated approach”

20 February 2018 • 5 min reading time

What are the challenges in the relationship between science, innovations, and societal issues? TNO’s CEO Paul de Krom discusses this with director Melanie Peters of the Rathenau Institute. They agree that greater opportunities should be available for research into societal challenges. It is only then that the Netherlands will be able to remain competitive.

The Rathenau Institute carries out research into science, innovation, and new technologies, and encourages debate on the matter. Another important role of the institute is that of supplying information to politicians and government. An example is the research it has carried out into public knowledge organisations in the Netherlands. “These public knowledge organisations conduct research that does not interest the private sector, which means they fulfil an important public task. That’s because we sometimes take for granted that research is carried out for the benefit of our health, security, and our environment,” says Peters. “In that regard, TNO is both unique and a strong brand. You do research and make every attempt to apply it. Also, TNO works for the government and the private sector, so you are able to link up the societal and economic impact.”

Paul de Krom: “New technologies are often costly initially, and are therefore unlikely to be able to secure a place on what is frequently a crowded market. Here, too, is a role for government”

Identifying challenges for the future

“Research is not a goal in itself,” De Krom points out. “It’s about its eventual significance to society. How can we solve societal challenges, in the field of work and health, for example?” Unfortunately, there is a one-sided emphasis nowadays on new publications, believe De Krom and Peters. “That goes not just for universities, but increasingly frequently for public knowledge organisations as well,” says Peters. “But we need more than that: the accumulation of fundamental and translational knowledge – where results from fundamental research are translated into practical applications – is very valuable. There should be recognition for different types of knowledge, each of which contributes in its own way to meeting the challenges that we as a society face. At the Rathenau Institute, we try to identify the challenges for the future. Let us use that as a basis from which to develop knowledge.”

Investing in innovation

The importance of innovation will become ever greater, predicts De Krom. “The Netherlands is actually doing really well. We score highly on all kinds of competitiveness rankings. The building blocks – infrastructure, healthcare, education, efficient goods market, and so on – are sound. Another positive aspect is the way in which technological innovation is applied in the country. The healthy collaboration between knowledge institutes, businesses, and government bodies is unique. That is one of the reasons that the Eindhoven region is at the top when it comes to innovative strength. To maintain this position, investment in innovation must continue. Regrettably, this has not been happening in recent years, even though it has done so in the surrounding countries. The Rathenau Institute has highlighted this in its Fact and Figures publications. If we do not look out and if investment does not rise, we will lose our strong position. It is pleasing that the new coalition agreement has ushered in a change to this trend and is going to invest more in both fundamental and applied research. As far as I am concerned, the glass is half full, but more is needed.”

Melanie Peters: “Society first - that is what I would like to see”

Keeping politicians informed

“It is also important to link the various international plans and agendas like the Sustainable Development Goals and the European Grand Challenges,” says De Krom. “We can only solve societal issues, such as the energy problem, by taking an integrated approach. That calls for collaboration between knowledge institutes and businesses. Here at TNO, we can be the ‘translation agency’, converting scientific concepts into applications, and bringing parties together. I am optimistic: there are enough economic and other opportunities for solving societal issues.”

Peters says, “The fact that collaboration could be the key word was understood by physicist Gerhart Rathenau – after whom the Rathenau Institute was named in 1994, as the successor to the Dutch Organisation for Technological Aspect Research. In the late 1970s, Rathenau, who was director of the Philips Natlab at the time, predicted the rapid development of the computer and the major influence it would have on society and on employment. The Rathenau Committee advised that the significance of technology for society should be studied systematically. This was what prompted the establishment of the Dutch Organisation for Technological Aspect Research. The most important lesson is that technology is not a stand-alone entity, but is something that has to be incorporated. Politicians must be kept informed and have the courage to take a position. That is what we continue to say today.”

Social debate

The aim of TNO is to make an impact, to be the driving force behind innovation. “We want to translate the concepts, knowledge, and technologies that we develop into applications,” explains De Krom. “It’s about two things: independence and objectivity, and further supporting the debate in society. There is a need for institutes like the Rathenau Institute and TNO, which independently and objectively look at the challenges of the present and the future, supply reliable facts, and identify trends. This knowledge can further strengthen debate in society, on the basis of facts. At TNO, we want to play a proactive part and set out what the possible scenarios are in relation to a range of themes affecting society.” Peters adds: “In that situation, it is sometimes difficult to avoid doing the work of politicians or business people. We present facts, offer pointers, and illustrate how things could be done. It is then up to politicians and the business community to make decisions.”

Paul de Krom: “If we do not look out and if investment does not rise, we will lose our strong position”

Society first

“Society first - that is what I would like to see,” says Peters. With so many societal issues, whether it be energy, extracting gas, robotisation or biotechnology, it is about transition – the transition to a new way of living and working with the help of new technologies. Politicians could show more leadership in this regard. After all, if politicians fail to make choices, then it will be difficult for businesses and science to commit themselves.

“Space must be made for innovation,” believes De Krom. “New technologies are often costly initially, and are therefore unlikely to be able to secure a place on what is frequently a crowded market. Here, too, is a role for government.”

Melanie Peters: “The most important lesson is that technology is not a stand-alone entity, but is something that has to be incorporated”

Where knowledge domains meet

It is important that every relevant party gives consideration to and shares its thoughts on transitions, concludes De Krom. “The collaboration between TNO and the Rathenau Institute is a valuable part of that process. We look at technical solutions, while the Rathenau Institute considers what they mean for society. Our researchers maintain very close contact. Each party has its own focus and does what it is good at; our strength in the Netherlands lies in bringing together and using all this expertise. After all, innovation often occurs where knowledge domains meet.”


For more information, please contact Shanna Wiegerinck



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