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New NWO chair Marcel Levi about directing an organisation with professionals

"I’m like the conductor of a symphony orchestra."

With Marcel Levi, NWO has acquired a straightforward can-do mentality and somebody who strives for optimal harmony. "NWO can be compared to an orchestra full of musicians who play the violin, oboe, harp or another instrument sublimely. My task is to ensure that such an orchestra as a whole sounds more beautiful than the sum of its individual musicians."

Marcel Levi recently moved to The Hague from London, where he was in charge of 17 university hospitals. In The Hague, he will provide leadership to the boards of the NWO domains and Institutes. In addition to this, Levi will be Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Amsterdam for one day per week, where he will also conduct research and treat patients at Amsterdam UMC, location AMC. It sounds like an ambitious combination, but Levi has always done many things at the same time. He is used to a high pace, and the fact that he only needs four hours of sleep per night helps too. Inside NWO-I went to meet Levi when he had only been in the job for a week.

Why did you exchange your fine position in London for the presidency of NWO?
I was already mulling over things: would I remain working in hospitals until my retirement, or would it be nice to do something else? I've always really enjoyed science, and during my work as a doctor and hospital director, I've always remained active as a scientist. So when this opportunity arose, I didn't have to think about it for long. It was all I could have wished for.

Why do you find it important to remain active as a doctor too?
I really take great pleasure in working as a doctor. It gives me a lot of satisfaction and also context. That last aspect is perhaps less relevant for the work of NWO than when I was a hospital director, but nonetheless, it still feels good to be actively involved on the work floor in some kind of capacity. Taking part, hearing what fascinates people or seeing what frustrates them. Besides, being a doctor is quite simply my profession.

These are strange times for joining a new organisation
I've had many introductory meetings, regrettably most of them online. But I have also been at the office for a couple of days, and that does help. It allows me to become familiar with my new workplace, even if there are few other people present. It is simply a case of making the best of the situation. But we’re all in the same boat anyhow. So I'm not going to complain. It is what it is. Getting to know people and familiarising myself with the dossiers has gone pretty well so far, despite the circumstances. This afternoon I’m off to visit four NWO Institutes at the Amsterdam Science Park. These are short visits, but I'm really looking forward to them. In the coming weeks, I'll visit all of the other institutes as well.

What are your ambitions for NWO?
Over the past few years, NWO has transitioned into a new type of organisation, and a lot of energy was invested in that. I think that this transition is gradually starting to take root, so that is very positive. Now we need to achieve the goals that we had in mind when we set out on that transition. This means that I would like to focus more on multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research. Because, at the moment, the major advances in science are being made at the intersections of disciplines when people enter into collaborations and suddenly discover a new perspective. Progress is likewise occurring within the disciplines, but at a slower rate.

I also find it incredibly important that science in the Netherlands has a clearly defined role. People often feel that most research may indeed be interesting and exciting, but nevertheless, they regard it as a bit of a hobby. I think we need to alter that perspective, to make people see that research does not cost money but brings in money! And far more important still: it provides solutions for the problems society faces. People need to understand that the funds allocated to science are not an expenditure but an investment. And it should also be borne in mind that an awful lot of research will not immediately yield a novel battery, a cancer drug or a successful social intervention, but that it might well do so a few years down the line.

Has managing hospitals taught you any lessons that can also be applied to an organisation like NWO?
I have worked in hospitals for 25 years, and there are definitely parallels. The most important is that both in hospitals and scientific organisations, almost everything depends on how people work together and how they communicate with each other. In this work, everything centres around people. I therefore think that many of the lessons I've learned can also be applied to an organisation like NWO.

Can you give an example?
In organisations like hospitals and NWO, the professional takes centre stage. But there needs to be a balance between the individual interests of that professional and the overarching interests of the organisation. Sometimes you need to remind people of this reality. My role as a director is to ensure that the researchers can do their work well. That is what I need to facilitate and support. So I want to put things on the agenda, and convince people that if they work together, they will achieve more. Sometimes I compare the role of a director with that of a conductor of a symphony orchestra. That orchestra is full of musicians who play the violin, oboe, harp or other instruments sublimely. However, the conductor’s job is to ensure that the orchestra as a whole sounds more beautiful than the sum of its individual musicians. This is comparable to my role as the director of a professional organisation.

NWO is both a research funding body and the manager of research institutes. In many other countries, a clearer separation exists between these two roles. Do you feel that there are good arguments for this separation?
This is a topic that could be discussed at length. Each European country has a slightly different approach, and there is no single gold standard. And I sometimes wonder how important that really is, to be honest. Fantastic things are happening at the institutes, and that requires a budget and a board. But, as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t really matter where exactly that governance responsibility lies. I think it’s a waste of energy to continue to elaborate upon such issues endlessly because it only detracts from what the institutes are actually there for.

Your predecessor Stan Gielen emphatically stated that the institutes derive their right to exist from their clear added value with respect to universities
I agree with that. If somebody asks: why is this an independent institute and not a department at a good university, then you need to be able to provide an answer. It could be the case that an institute brings together research from different universities. Or that a discipline cannot be easily fit into the portfolio of one of the Dutch universities. Or that an institute might have an infrastructure that an individual university could never maintain.

Several years ago, the NWO Institutes were brought together under the umbrella organisation NWO-I. Their processes are increasingly being harmonised. Some institutes could feel curtailed in their freedom. How do the institutes benefit from being part of the umbrella organisation NWO-I?
The institutes exist to do outstanding research. And everything else only detracts from that: the organisations around this, the money, the personnel affairs, and administrative procedures. As an institute, I would be happy if a single central organisation took all of that work off my plate and did it efficiently so that overheads no longer require a disproportional amount of money. That would be my first impression.

Is there another message that you would like to give as part of this introduction?
I'd like to emphasise that the Netherlands does exceptionally well in the field of scientific research. Wherever you go, everybody is jealous about how well the Netherlands has arranged things and that such a small country has an exceptionally high and good scientific output. Of course, there are problems, and I’m not going to downplay them. But there are also an awful lot of things that are really good. I’ve got no objection to grumbling and complaining, and I regularly do so myself. That clears the air. But it should not be the only tune we can sing. Occasionally we need to be able to look around and be proud of what we have achieved together, what we are achieving now and what we will achieve in the future. That often gives a tad more energy too.

Text: Mariette Huisjes
Newsletter Inside NWO-I, May 2021

Who is Marcel Levi?
Marcel Levi (1964) has an impressive track record. He became Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Amsterdam at the age of 35, has published more than 700 scientific articles, and has been a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) since 2009. In 2000, he became president of the board of the AMC (University of Amsterdam Medical Centre), a post he held for 17 years. During this period, he prepared the merger with VUmc. In 2016, he was recruited as Chief Executive of the University College London Hospitals. On 1 April 2021, Levi returned to the Netherlands to become chair of NWO. As a medical governance expert, Levi regularly appears in the media. He also writes a weekly column in the Dutch newspaper Het Parool.

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