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Prime minister Rutte and science minister Dijkgraaf visit NWO Institute SRON

'Insane to see how much talent we have in Dutch science. Thanks to all the people working at organisations like this, we have a great reputation abroad.' Prime Minister Mark Rutte said this on Monday afternoon 9 October during a working visit to NWO Institute SRON in Leiden. Rutte visited the Dutch institute for space research together with science minister Robbert Dijkgraaf. Afterwards, the latter expressed 'super pride to show this great institute to our prime minister. I especially enjoyed the fact that we got to see such a broad spectrum of the scientific research taking place in the Netherlands'.

Leading international

Broad and diverse it certainly was. After a brief welcome speech by NWO chairman Marcel Levi and SRON director Michael Wise, both ministers took their seats in the lecterns (Dijkgraaf to Rutte: "Shall we do the council of ministers in this setting from now on?") for two mini-lectures on two space instruments. These are living proof that Dutch research is internationally leading, as Wise had pointed out in his introduction. Earth scientist Ilse Aben talked about the space satellite TROPOMI, an instrument developed in the Netherlands that tracks large methane leaks around the world via millions of measurements per day. Plugging these methane leaks is seen as the way to limit global warming in the short term. TROPOMI has therefore been playing a crucial role in a United Nations global warning system since last year. Afterwards, Aben's SRON colleagues Terri Brandt and Aurora Simionescu gave a short presentation on their research into black holes with the space telescopes Athena and LISA, among others.

I can only say: wow, that we have that in the Netherlands! 
Prime minister Mark Rutte

What we do really well in the Netherlands is connecting everything to everything. That's really our great strength 
Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf (OCW)

Wonderful conversations

After the mini-lectures, it was time for a series of speed dates. Independently of each other, Dijkgraaf and Rutte entered into discussions with researchers from all kinds of different fields: from behavioural science to food technology and from planetary health to petroleum engineering. It was precisely the mix of the different topics that led to Rutte's enthusiasm. 'They were all wonderful conversations. First with the people working here at SRON on very high-quality research of which you can only say: wow, we have that in the Netherlands! But right after that, they also talked about very practical subjects, which we in society can benefit from immediately'.

Among others, Rutte spoke with Wageningen researcher Tim van Emmerik, who showed him via a filled bag how much plastic waste per second flowed through the Maas during the Limburg flood of 2021. 'As researchers are able to map that problem more and more accurately, hopefully a solution will also come closer to being found more quickly,' the prime minister said. That much of all that plastic is left behind in inland waters is relatively new information, Van Emmerik said. 'It was thought that most of the plastic waste was discharged to the sea. We call it the Teflon theory, and this time it is not about you,' he told Rutte, laughing. 'But so we now see that it actually all stays in the rivers.' Because of its great importance for society, Van Emmerik called on the state and NWO to continue to encourage and fund this kind of research.

Drivers of researchers

Rutte also spoke with Rudy Negenborn (TU Delft) about cleaner shipping and sustainable and autonomous sailing and with Loes Kreemers (Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences) about hidden urban nature. Besides research content, he showed great interest in the personal motivations of the various researchers. He concluded the talks in word and gesture with a deep bow to the scientists' work.

Dijkgraaf also looked back inspired by the combination of lectures and speed dates. 'We looked at satellites taking pictures of black holes, my personal favourite subject, the results of which will not be visible for another 10 or 15 years. But at the same time, we were also shown very concrete things, such as how to extract CO2 from seawater or how to make cheese without cows.' He had talked about this with Rose Sharifian (Faculty of Impact), who is working on removing and storing CO2 from oceans with her start-up Sea-O2, and food technologist Etske Bijl (WUR). Pim Martens, professor of Planetary Health at Maastricht University, talked about climate change and the spread of infectious diseases.

As researchers get better and better at identifying problems, hopefully solutions will also get closer 
Prime minister Mark Rutte

Unanticipated knowledge

Central theme during the working visit to NWO and SRON was discovering the (un)expected. 'Science works on innovation and solutions to concrete issues, but sometimes it also produces new knowledge or inventions that were not foreseen,' said Marcel Levi. 'With the examples researchers showed today, we want to demonstrate that too. As NWO, we consider it essential to keep a good balance between all forms of science - fundamental, applied and practice-oriented. Each has its own added value - all three are badly needed and make an important contribution to our country, scientifically, socially, economically and socially.'

Strength of the Netherlands

The fact that the Netherlands is on the international map so well is really something to cherish. And that doesn't happen by itself, we have to keep investing in it, concluded Rutte and Dijkgraaf in their follow-up interview with Marcel Levi and Michael Wise. 'I'm not allowed to use the word ecosystem anymore, but that's what it is,' Dijkgraaf commented. 'What we do really well here is connect everything to everything. That is really one of the great strengths of the Netherlands. We are a flat country, also in terms of hierarchy. It's very egalitarian, everyone can have a say. Even ideas from students can lead to great things.'

'We are among the world's best in many areas and we need to keep it that way, Dijkgraaf concluded. 'Isn't it fantastic that all these talents from all over the world come to the Netherlands to do research here?'

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