Portrait of Ineke Sluiter
Ineke Sluiter: “During the COVID-19 pandemic, what had apparently been smouldering unseen seemed to explode.” (Photo: Merlijn Doomernik)

“Diversity may have become mainstream, but people still don’t look around enough”, says outgoing president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences Ineke Sluiter.

Lees in het Nederlands

“There are more stars in the sky than you see through your car windscreen”,. “You have to take a good look around you.” This week the professor of Greek Language and Literature stepped down as president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW).

The coronavirus crisis had just started when Leiden University professor Ineke Sluiter became president of the KNAW. The discussions in society soon became heated. Scientists were threatened, women more so than men, and Sluiter took up the cudgels on their behalf. She asked all scientists to do the same. “This is no time for irony”, she warned. ‘’Don’t ask why someone is on television all the time. We need to support them, even if we don’t always agree with them.”

Now that she is bidding farewell, she takes a look back. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, what had apparently been smouldering unseen seemed to explode”, she says. “Conducting a public debate is one of the major tasks of scientists, but suddenly they were being severely threatened and intimidated, hate speech was flying around everywhere. It was a scary situation, and to make things worse they were working from home and couldn’t see their colleagues. People felt isolated. We asked for attention to be paid to that.”

‘Hate speech was flying around everywhere’

Something else surprised her as well. “There was a shocking difference between the treatment of men and women. Men got verbal abuse but women were also threatened with rape.” She was in a position to speak out, Sluiter realised, so she needed to do just that.

She had previously spoken out in public as a member of the action group Athena’s Angels, which challenges sexism in science. “We did that through playful stunts. It was all quickfire and light-hearted.”

That had an effect. But in her view, as an administrator you are in an even better position to improve things, for those threatened scientists for example. There is now a hotline for threats and the researchers get good information. “How do you safeguard evidence, how can you save tweets, how do you make your accounts secure? And from now on if you go to the police, someone from the institution will go along with you to make a report as well. The universities have now introduced measures of this sort and I hope it helps.”

Not all her work is so visible. A lot happens at round tables. “I have never lost my convictions but now I can use other instruments. A KNAW president has a totally different role in the system.”

And the tide is turning. “It is now mainstream to try to give everyone room to express their talent. Many people are thinking about diversity and its importance in science. I have continued to pursue that line.”

But being mainstream does not mean that everything is now in order. The problems with diversity are deep-seated. It is sometimes easy when everyone in a team appears to be alike, whereas diversity can cause friction. And sometimes the problem is simply that you forget to look around you.

“You see the stars shining through your car windscreen but the universe is larger than the sky you see in front of you. You need to look around. I could see that also in the Westerdijk Year in 2017. That was the 100th anniversary of the appointment of the first female professor in the Netherlands and we admitted extra women to the Academy to commemorate that. I was a member of the jury that assessed the dossiers. Normally there are a few candidates among them that have been proposed before but this time all the dossiers were new and the candidates were top quality. We didn’t understand why they hadn’t been put forward to us before. Was it solely because this time we had asked specifically? But that’s how it goes with many forms of diversity. Just look around you. The talent is there but we don’t always see it.”

It is good to be aware of the things you don’t see. Five percent of professors are members of the KNAW. It is a select society of top scientists. “But it says nothing about the people who are not members”, Sluiter stresses. That is also how it is with academic grants, she believes. It says something when you get a grant but on the other hand it says nothing about those who just miss out. 

‘We lose women at every step in their career’

“People across the board are aware of the ratio of women to men”, she says. “It’s a rather simplistic distinction but you have to start somewhere – you can see how slowly progress is being made. The pipeline starts leaking after the PhD is obtained: we lose women at every step in their career. The question is whether at a certain moment people decide to work somewhere else or whether they are forced to do so. That’s the main reason why we’re soon going to issue an advisory report on the problem of inappropriate behaviour on the work floor.”

Goodwill is not the problem, in her view. Sluiter believes that everyone is “in agreement to some extent” about the ideas behind diversity, inclusion, social safety and the system of ‘recognition and rewards’ in more areas than just research. The main question is what should be done about it in practice.

“Even at the KNAW you sometimes have a webinar where there are only men on the panel. Then I have to take a deep breath and try to see later on what can be done about it. I understand how it can happen. Intrinsically well-intentioned men organise something in relation to their specialty and invite a few good colleagues, and then tend to forget to take a better look around them. But many men in my circle are fully aware that solving this problem is in everyone’s best interests. And they no longer want to sit on an all-male panel.”

Her own field is Greek Language and Literature. There are plenty of women in that field but diversity is of course still an issue. For instance, there are few black researchers so you have to pay extra attention to that.

Diversity begins at school and when choosing a study programme, says Sluiter. “People need to be able to expect that opportunities are open to them in that field and we also have to make that clear during the study programme itself.”

For that reason alone she feels it is so important for teaching and research to go hand in hand at universities. “Sometimes we talk about the ‘valorisation’ [benefit and impact; ed.] of research, but our graduates are our most important form of valorisation.” She believes it is essential to get time to do research for everything you teach. “That means that you can keep abreast of the latest developments in your field.”

‘Without research it is not academic education at all’

Students also have to come into contact with research at university. Otherwise it is not academic education at all, in her view. “You have to acquire academic skills at university; in fact they are research skills. You need to have a natural curiosity and keep your eyes open, you need to ask pertinent questions, gather data that can help you, organise that data and build up valid arguments, and be able to deal with doubt and evolving insights. Our graduates are also ambassadors for our research, they understand how science works. That’s elementary. So the interdependence of research and teaching is essential.”

Do students acquire those academic skills in all disciplines, even in popular study programmes such as law and economics? Maybe it is the administrator speaking, but she thinks they do. “All academic programmes that I know are continuously trying to improve in quality. This happens absolutely everywhere. You want to do your work as well as possible, and the study programmes are also reviewed regularly.”

She believes that it is not complacent to say that the teaching is good. “It would be complacent if no checks were made. But every study programme has to be accredited and receives visits from review committees. They ask: are you doing this right, is the level of the dissertations high enough, etc. It is all done with great care. You might even ask yourself whether those checks involve too much paperwork.”

It is the line she adopts frequently during the interview. She has ideals, she encourages everyone to do things better, but she doesn’t point the finger at anyone. The teaching needs to improve, but it is already good. People should have greater awareness of diversity, but it is not for lack of effort. The system of ‘recognition and rewards’ is here to stay, but its implementation does not always go smoothly – you have to introduce it by trial and error.

That is also the case when she talks of the independence of research. She has been involved with the balancing act between cooperation and independence, she says. “To develop medicines you need funding from the sector but then people immediately look at you with suspicion because you are then supposedly no longer independent. That’s also how it goes with research for parliament or a ministry. Politics isn’t a science but it needs good analyses. On the other hand, we harp on about our independence but at the same time we are dependent on politicians. So both sides have to stay sharp.”

‘Teaching must never become a chore’

Now that the government is making extra money available for research, Sluiter is calling for teaching and research not to be separated. “Teaching and research belong together. It’s also fantastic to be able to talk about your own research. I have always enjoyed my research. Consequently, the pressure must never become so great that teaching becomes a chore and that you have to ‘buy’ your freedom to carry out research. That’s the death knell. Teaching must always be at the heart of our work.”

That is what she likes so much about the proposal for rolling grants that the KNAW has made. That money is intended to combat the ‘projectification’ of science and to provide researchers with their own working capital. This is conditional on those researchers also teaching. In fact, Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf, also a former KNAW president, is interested in the idea of rolling grants.

In her time with the KNAW, initially as vice-president and then as president, Sluiter continued teaching as well. For instance, every year she gave a lecture entitled ‘Classic now’ to Master’s students, in which she used texts from ancient history to shed light on contemporary themes. Ancient history is still of interest if only for the discussions between left and right, she says. “The texts themselves contain so many perspectives. Many of the tragedies of Euripides bear the name of a woman, and those women have plenty of opportunity to speak out. The play ‘The Suppliants’ by Aeschylus could equally be called ‘The Asylum Seekers’. The Greeks had to deal with disease, just as we do. That lecture shows students that they too can carry out research into anything that interests them.”

HOP, Bas Belleman
Translation: Taalcentrum-VU