Speech by minister Van Engelshoven at the VSNU/EUA Conference on Recognition and Rewards

Speech by minister Van Engelshoven at the VSNU/EUA Conference on Recognition and Rewards, on November the 15th, in Rotterdam

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Dear friends,

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of humankind’s first walk on the moon.

Fifty years ago, six hundred million people watched grainy images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin taking their first steps on the lunar surface. 

It was the summer of ‘69, and President Kennedy had fulfilled his promise to put a human on the moon within the decade.

It was the culmination of years of work by hundreds of scientists.

Scientists who had worked together, to push back the boundaries of the unknown.

A little closer to home, in the field of education – one of today’s topics - there is another striking example of what can be achieved by working together: the rise of University Colleges in The Netherlands.

At these Colleges, students from all over the world  explore multi-disciplinary courses together.

They learn how to use their academic skills to have an impact on their own communities, and society at large.

This approach has been a significant innovation in our Dutch education system.

It has inspired other parts of the universities as well.

I saw this recently at a project from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, called ‘Community Service Learning’.

In this project master students from various disciplines conduct research in collaboration with communities. 

Breakthroughs and innovations like these help us to understand the world around us, but they also inspire new generations to pursue a career in academia.


And it’s absolutely vital that they continue to do so.

Because Europe is bursting with talented people.

And there are so many opportunities to put all that talent to good use.

Just look at what’s happening right now in the field of Open Science. 

Clearly, our scientific community possesses all the talent it needs to reinvent our knowledge sector. 

But it’s also clear to me that our current system of recognition and rewards is out of step with such developments.

It’s a system based on competition, which has brought us countless scientific advancements. 

At the same time, we must always keep asking ourselves whether we’re still bringing out the best in our academics.

I don’t think we are.

The current emphasis on the individual is threatening to come at the expense of the collective.

The emphasis on quantity and competition is threatening to come at the expense of quality and collaboration.

And the emphasis on scientists who have to excel at everything is threatening to come at the expense of diversity in talent and skills.

Belle Derks, chair of the Young Academy, put it in a very striking way, when she recently said this:

“There seems to be a gap between the image that scientists think they have to live up to, and the kind of scientist most of us really are."

Because of this, the pressure on scientists continues to increase, and it is causing a lot of stress.

I’m well aware of that.

That’s why we need to change our system of recognition and rewards.

We need to do better.

So I’m honoured to be here with you today.

And to receive an important position paper that so many of you have embraced.

And that includes myself.


I would like to give a well-deserved compliment to everyone who has worked so hard on this project.


It gives me hope to see how much this means to you, and how committed you are to bring change.

To take concrete and meaningful steps to bring about this necessary transition.

A transition towards a system that recognizes leadership, education, impact and patient care – and not just publications and grants.

Towards a system where diversity is the norm, and not just an ideal.

And towards a system where open science is the standard, and not the exception.

In short, a transition towards a system that focuses on collaboration.

Collaboration between colleagues, disciplines and countries, and between science and society at large.

It takes courage to join forces in this new journey beyond the boundaries of the unknown.

And I appreciate that.

Which is why you can expect me to do my utmost to support your ambitions.


For example, by instituting a new education award here in the Netherlands.

And by actively promoting your plans and ambitions abroad.

Dear friends,

What drives us to undertake difficult things?

Or something as dangerous as a journey to the moon?

In the summer of 1962, President Kennedy famously put it like this:

"We choose to go to the moon – not because it is easy, but because it is hard."

I sense that same determination here in this room today.

Let’s hold on to that.

Thank you.