‘Value to society has our full attention’
Rector Magnificus Hester Bijl can see dilemmas but above all opportunities in the search to increase the societal value of research in Leiden.
In what ways does the University add value to society?
‘Much of our research helps resolve major societal challenges in the area of health, security and sustainability, for instance. And our researchers are encouraged to work with partners from society and to share their knowledge widely. They join the societal debate, give talks at schools and travel all over the country to give lectures. Very interesting, but there is much more, such as professors who take up a seat in advisory committees or on supervisory boards. And of course all the managers, product innovators, policymakers, entrepreneurs and politicians of the future that we provide. Our students will make a difference. If that’s not added value...’
‘Our new teaching vision has eight points of attention, four on teaching and four on the relationship between student and society.’
Is the challenge different from in the past?
‘The focus on our societal role is nothing new. Take the period of the Civitas ideology, soon after the Second World War. At that time the University consciously took on that role, but we now live in a society with particularly complex challenges that with entrenched positions for and against. Climate researchers have to relate to these societal dynamics and be able to work with others – also outside their own discipline. The efficacy of technological solutions is linked to support in society, so it is sensible for a physicist to seek collaboration with a sociologist who specialises in mass communication. This is why we give some of our students multidisciplinary training and why they can do minors outside their own discipline. This helps them take an integrated look at what they can mean to society. Societal value has our full attention, in a new context. Our new teaching vision therefore has eight points of attention, four of which are about teaching and four about the relationship between student and society.’
How can fundamental research contribute?
‘Fundamental research is not intended to be “applicable”, that’s true, but it’s a misconception that fundamental research should never want to add value to society. Spinoza Prize winner Marc Koper does research into electrochemistry, but he still likes to talk to big companies. These discussions about their wishes and insights from research sometimes lead to adjustments to his research questions. And what about the Janssen vaccine? The cell line and the framework for that extremely societally relevant vaccine are the direct result of fundamental Leiden research.’
Read the full interview in Leidraad, the magazine for Leiden University alumni (in Dutch).
Text: Fred Hermsen
Photo: Monique Shaw