Dap Hartmann kijkt indringend op een bankje.
(Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Not just research that leads to useful applications is worthwhile, writes Dap Hartmann.

Lees in het Nederlands

TU Delft has three core tasks: Education, Research and Valorisation. Five years ago, in the ‘Strategic Framework 2018-2024’ entitled Impact for a better society, the word ‘valorisation’ was replaced by ‘innovation’. The Valorisation Centre was subsequently renamed the Innovation & Impact Centre.

Unfortunately, the Executive Board does not reflect this trinity. The portfolios of the three Executive Board members are: Education, Research and Bricks. The third core task is subsumed into the loose change of the research portfolio. This is such a missed opportunity because Innovation & Impact are extremely important for the visibility of TU Delft and for the public support for scientific research. That is why I have argued for years to appoint an additional Executive Board member for the Innovation & Impact portfolio.

We have now progressed to improving game material for pub entertainment

If impact can be measured by the media attention paid to TU Delft, then the development of a better dart arrow is currently at the top of the list. While it used to be led by the Nuna solar car that has won the World Solar Challenge across Australia every year, we have now progressed to improving game material for pub entertainment. The new dart has been widely reported in all the newspapers, and even the Jeugdjournaal (Dutch daily news broadcast intended for children) paid attention to it. You can just hear Cees Dekker grinding his teeth. His research group publishes one remarkable paper after the other in Nature and Science, but the Jeugdjournaal has never come to visit. Last week, the NRC (major Dutch newspaper) devoted 600 words to his research on how DNA folds into chromosomes, but it is difficult to determine its societal impact. Indeed, it may take a long time before fundamental scientific research actually has an impact. In 1905, Albert Einstein published his famous equation E=mc2 in Annalen der Physik. The first practical application did not appear until forty years later, on August 6, 1945.

Research funding proposals invariably ask about the societal relevance of the research. That is highly regrettable because it implies that only research which leads to useful results is worthwhile. Indisputably, there are huge societal problems that are in dire need of a solution, but research without a specific application in mind can also lead to great innovations. Like graphene, which was considered a curiosity when Andre Geim used sticky tape to peel it off of a chunk of graphite. This new form of carbon has now been upgraded to material with ‘the potential to create the next-generation of electronics currently limited to sci-fi’. In 2009, Geim received an honorary doctorate from TU Delft, and the following year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. That is why a university of technology should not neglect fundamental research. In this context, I refer to the brilliant fictitious letter that Jasper van Kuijk published in Delta in 2006.

After Google was founded by Stanford University PhD students Larry Page and Serge Brin, its president John Hennessey said, ‘We have an environment at Stanford that promotes entrepreneurship and risk-taking research. […] People really understand here that sometimes the biggest way to deliver an effect to the world is not by writing a paper but by taking technology you believe in and making something of it.’ Bullseye!

(Photo: Anastase Maragos/Unsplash)

Dap Hartmann is Associate Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Delft Centre for Entrepreneurship (DCE) at the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management. In a previous life, he was an astronomer and worked at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Together with conductor and composer Reinbert de Leeuw, he wrote a book about modern (classical) music.