Issue: Science

This issue contains 4 sections.

National research

High-quality research can help solve social problems and boost the economy. That is why the government is supporting research in specific fields, like genomics and nanotechnology. It is providing incentive funding to encourage international cooperation in this area, both via the European Union and in a wider context.

Where possible, decisions on research priorities – about topics, themes and methods – are left to the research world itself, except where they concern matters of social  importance (such as the use of super-fast computers to calculate climate change) or economic importance (such as nanocoatings to protect against graffiti). The government has accordingly designated genomics, ICT and nanotechnology as national research priorities and is making additional funding available for these areas.

For more information download the booklet entitled Good to Know, which describes the work of the Research and Science Policy Department.

National Initiative Brain and Cognition (NIBC)

Launched in November 2009, the National Initiative Brain and Cognition (NIBC) is a centre for fundamental, strategic and applied research in this field. NIBC research projects are designed to answer pressing questions relating to health, education and safety. They address issues such as improving learner motivation, preventing antisocial behaviour and promoting recovery from brain injuries.

NIBC consists of various components, including the NWO programme ‘Brain and Cognition: an Integrated Approach’, and the Economic Structure Enhancing Fund (FES) programme ‘Social Innovation in Health Care, Education and Security’. NIBC also supports the development of new strategic or applied research programmes, both nationally and internationally. The organisation aims to encourage collaboration among leading scientists, but also to stimulate cooperation with partners from the fields of education, health and justice, and from the world of business (both large corporations and SMEs).

A total of €80 million has been budgeted for NIBC. A proportion of this amount (€20 million for the 2010-2015 period) is from FES. The Ministries of Education, Culture & Science; Health, Welfare & Sport; Security & Justice and Defence are closely involved. NWO coordinates and supports NIBC.

Read more about NIBC in their publication ‘Mind Matters: Ambitions of the National Initiative Brain and Cognition’ or on their website.

Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity (NCB)

Central government has earmarked €30 million for a joint initiative by Amsterdam University (UvA), Leiden University and Wageningen University and Research Centre. Together with the National Natural History Museum Naturalis, the three universities are working to establish a single national centre for biodiversity in 2010. The government funding is being used to form a huge combined collection comprising 37 million specimens of plants, minerals, stuffed and mounted animals and fossils. This will make the Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity (NCB) one of the top five centres of this kind in the world. In addition, the partner organisations intend to engage in systematic cooperation in the fields of research and education. The Centre will also accommodate laboratory facilities for geological, DNA and other research. 

ITER-NL2 nuclear fusion programme

In late 2009 the government decided to invest €8 million in the ITER-NL2 nuclear fusion programme.  ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) is an international cooperation project intended to demonstrate the scientific and technological viability of nuclear fusion as a source of power. Nuclear fusion is seen as the ideal energy source for the future. It is safe, relies on fuels that are readily available (deuterium and tritium) and produces neither high-level radioactive waste nor greenhouse gas emissions (only helium, which is harmless).

ITER-NL2 will enable Dutch researchers and businesses to make a joint contribution to the development and construction of the planned demonstration fusion reactor at Cadarache (France). By doing so, they will gain important scientific know-how and partner businesses may also be able to secure contracts relating to the high-tech materials they develop.

SURFnet

Between 2009 and 2012, the government is investing €32 million in the modernisation of SURFnet. SURFnet is the most advanced data communication network for higher education and research anywhere in the world, and the upgrading of the network will ensure that the Netherlands maintains its lead in this field.

Starting in 2012, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science will systematically invest in the further development of the IT research infrastructure. These investments will increase to €15 million annually as of 2014. In addition to supporting the network, these investments will also go to fund advanced data storage, cloud and grid computing, high performance computing and e-science. The Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation has committed €7 million for the 2011-2013 period. Modern scientific research relies heavily on the availability of high-speed, direct connections with high bandwidth. The DigiBOB digital breast cancer population screening project, for example, uses SURFnet’s high-speed fibre optic network to transport mammograms for centralised assessment. Likewise, astronomers around the world can now examine and analyse images as they are transmitted live from radio telescopes, whereas not so long ago such images had to be sent by post.

ICT research

The government attaches great importance to research on information and communication technology (ICT). This is a broad field, involving disciplines such as informatics, artificial intelligence, logic, cognitive science, language and speech technology and microelectronics.

On 16 November 2011 the COMMIT programme was launched. The goal of the programme is to expand and strengthen the Dutch knowledge infrastructure in IT and make companies more competitive internationally by linking up the best scientists with high-tech businesses.

At present COMMIT is the largest Dutch public-private research programme in the IT sector. A total of €100 million is being invested in the programme, €50 million of which is in the form of grant money. There are 16 knowledge institutions and 64 profit and non-profit organisations involved. Examples of profit and non-profit organisations are Philips, TNO, Chess Engineering, the Thales Group, the Netherlands National News Agency (ANP), Beeld en Geluid and many other high-tech SMEs.

COMMIT seeks to achieve IT breakthroughs in relation to urgent socioeconomic issues in the fields of health and wellbeing, e-science, public safety and information processing. COMMIT maintains a strong focus on the Netherlands’ international knowledge and market position in IT subfields in which the country is strong.

Genomics

To secure the Netherlands a position as a world leader in the field of genomics, the Netherlands Genomics Initiative (NGI) was established by five ministries in 2002, with the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science as the lead party. For this phase a total of €300 million was budgeted. After a successful international evaluation of the first phase, it was decided in 2008 to launch a second phase (total cost: €271 million), in order to further increase, consolidate and use the knowledge that had already been acquired. The NGI has four aims: enhancing the knowledge base, social research and communication, valorisation and international expansion.

The NGI runs 16 NGI centres, where knowledge institutions, companies and civil society organisations work together on their own specialisms in the fields of nutrition, health, the environment and public safety. These centre are involved in the development of new medical treatments, agricultural improvements, healthier and safer foods with a longer shelf life, improvements to forensic investigation practices and sustainable development of biofuels. The NGI Centre for Society and Genomics is specifically concerned with building public support for genomics research (see also ‘Science in question’).

The present funding for the NGI will stop after 2013. Not only the NGI, but also other initiatives in the life sciences are financed through the temporary FES. Many stakeholders want to take the development of life sciences further, as documented in the book Partners in the Polder: Life Sciences in 2020, published by the NGI with input from all actors in the life sciences field.

It is important that the expertise that has been accumulated in the Netherlands remain available for scientific research and can be taken advantage of by people in various fields, ranging from medicine to agri-food to forensics. See also the results from the midterm review of the second phase of NGI.

Nanotechnology

Dutch government expects major economic and social benefits to accrue from research into nanotechnology (the manipulation of matter on the very smallest scale, right down to the molecular and atomic level). The many advances resulting from the new technology may range from new materials to molecular medicine.

Without losing sight of the need to manage possible risks to health and the environment, the government wants the Netherlands to be a world leader in the development of nanotechnology. The Netherlands adheres to the principle that it can only take full advantage of its opportunities through careful risk management. This principle is elaborated on in the government’s Nanotechnology Strategy (2006), the Nanotechnology Action Plan (July 2008) and the Nanotechnology Letter (2011).

The Dutch government regards nanotechnology as a major pillar of the national knowledge economy and is accordingly making substantial investments in it. For example, the research programme NanoNext NL was launched in 2011. The government budgeted €125 million for the programme. This amount was matched by knowledge institutions and the business community, making a total of €250 million. NanoNext NL will run to the end of 2015. The purpose of the programme is to explore new applications of nanotechnology and microtechnology and to translate them into marketable products. These might include nanochips to conduct medical tests inside patients’ bodies, leading to faster and more accurate diagnoses; more efficient solar cells; improved water purification; and ways of monitoring food quality via ‘smart’ packaging.

In addition to research into applications of nanotechnology, NanoNextNL also examines possible risks associated with nanoparticles and the social questions that nanotechnology can give rise to.

Further background information on nanotechnology research and projects can be found on the website of NanoNextNL, a research programme in which approximately 50 knowledge institutions and around 100 companies are collaborating on nanotechnological research and applications. The government is also investing in nanotechnology via the European Union’s 7th Framework Programme (FP7).