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Ineke Sluiter: ‘Accessibility, diversity and inclusion are a matter of doing the right thing’

For two years, Ineke Sluiter was president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). Now, she is returning to the university full time. ‘I always carry themes like accessibility, diversity and inclusion with me.’

Sluiter is looking forward to sinking her teeth into a big research project. In recent years, as president of the KNAW, the Greek language and literature professor mostly focused on improving science in general. ‘The circumstances were unusual, with my whole presidency during corona times and at the tail end of that presidency, the war in Ukraine started,’ she says. ‘Nevertheless, it was a time of huge enthusiasm and pleasure.’

Many problems that Sluiter had already intended to raise were pushed to the forefront because of the corona pandemic. ‘We already had issues surrounding work pressure, a skewed balance between curiosity-driven and thematic research, intense competition with a low percentage of research projects being funded and even threats made against researchers,’ she explains. ‘A new turn of events was the fact that everyone suddenly turned to academia for answers.’

Social climate

The attention was not always positive, she is swift to add. For several researchers, the corona crisis led to ‘extremely unpleasant’ circumstances. However, at the same time, the situation also offered opportunities. ‘Before the corona crisis, the political climate was turned inwards. It was possible for us to say that the mRNA vaccine could be developed within the year because twenty-five years of international fundamental research into coronaviruses preceded it. It suddenly became clear why it’s important to maintain the level of scientific research across the board. After all, you don't know where or when the next crisis will happen.’

'People deserve the opportunity to develop their talents.'

Another factor that influenced Sluiter’s presidency was the slow formation of the cabinet. ‘Because we weren’t seeing any progress in structural improvements to our funding, we were partially forced to devote a great deal of attention and care to something I call “science with a heart”,’ she explains. ‘It focuses on acknowledging and valuing, diversity and inclusion, everything that’s necessary for a safe and attractive working environment within the university.’ For Sluiter, such a working environment is an imperative in both a moral and practical sense. ‘It’s a matter of justness: people deserve the opportunity to develop their talents. In addition, these issues are in the interests of science. We’d do ourselves an injustice if we excluded such talent. Especially in the humanities, a diversity of perspectives is important in order to improve the quality of scientific results.’

A recently published KNAW report specifically describes how to work preventively develop such a safe working environment with a rich diversity of perspectives. ‘This clearly doesn’t solve all the issues, but at least they’re now on the agenda of all universities in the Netherlands,’ says Sluiter. Further implementation is up to her successor (Professor Marileen Dogterom), who also supports the agenda.

New opportunities

Sluiter has now returned to the university full time. ‘I never really left. I still taught lectures and supervised PhD students, but I’m looking forward to focusing on new research projects.’ First and foremost, that means she will continue working on her NWO Gravitation project into innovations and how they are anchored in Antiquity. 

In addition, she admires all the efforts her colleagues and Classics students have put into making their field of study more widely accessible. ‘I want to support their efforts, because that’s also related to the issue of diversity and inclusion.’

‘Right now, it’s important to make good use of the funds that are coming our way.'

Sluiter hopes that the promised incentive funds for academia as a whole can help in this respect. ‘Right now, it’s important to make good use of the funds that are coming our way, because it won’t be long before we enter another period of cuts in funding. I hope we can give the younger generation the opportunity to develop as researchers before that happens.’

Major new project

The new project she is looking forward to working on is already slowly taking shape. ‘I’m excited to get started again with my usual way of doing research: by reading extensively. What’s happening in other fields? Where’s the connection to classical languages and developments in society? What else can I create from that? I already have a few ideas, but if you start to verbalise them too soon, you’ll stop them dead. That’s why I’m going to let them simmer in silence for a while.'

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