‘Er is wel degelijk een brain drain’ tu delft delta
Tim van der Hagen: “Top researchers prefer to go to Germany or Switzerland.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Does a recent KNAW report on the state of Dutch science paint too rosy a picture? According to Tim van der Hagen, TU Delft’s chairman and rector, the Netherlands is definitely experiencing a brain drain in the applied sciences.

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The Netherlands is an appealing country for researchers, the KNAW reported last month in ‘The attractiveness of the Netherlands as a research country’. Over the past ten years, the number of university researchers who came to the Netherlands was about the same as the number that left. And the newcomers, according to the KNAW, are on average slightly better than those who emigrated. There is no brain drain in the Netherlands, the report concludes.

But be wary. This doesn’t mean things are rosy across the whole spectrum of science. The contrast between the KNAW report and a 2016 study by the Council for Physics and Chemistry could hardly be greater. “The brain drain is increasing”, says this report (in Dutch).

The Council for Physics and Chemistry was established in 2016 by the chairpersons of the Beta Deans Consultation, the Chemical Sciences Division of NWO, and the FOM Foundation, and is committed to strengthening physics and chemistry in the Netherlands. For the 2016 study, the Council interviewed deans of science faculties of Dutch universities. TU Delft’s President of the Executive Board and Rector Magnificus Tim van der Hagen, then dean of the Faculty of Applied Sciences, was one of the interviewees.

“Our experience is that in the highest echelon there is indeed a brain drain. If you look at the top scientists, people who, for example, have received an ERC Advanced Grant,” Van der Hagen wrote this week in an email to Delta, “it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract people of that top level, people who have extensive research and teaching experience. The quality of our university is high and it is attractive to live in the Netherlands, but obtaining research money (for the funding of PhD students, postdocs and equipment) is more difficult in the Netherlands than abroad. Nor is it possible here to provide researchers with a substantial start-up package, allowing for such a top scientist to immediately start working with a group of young researchers and offering him or her the right lab infrastructure.”

One of the members of the Council for Nature and Chemistry is Dr Leo Kouwenhoven, of the Delft Laboratory for Quantum Technology, QuTech. “If you average out the whole range of science, there may not be a brain drain,” he says, referring to the KNAW report, “but what use are averages? Nothing or no one is average. Le Français moyen n’existe pas , was the first French phrase that I learned at school. We have the greatest difficulty in attracting top talent. And physics and chemistry are so important to the economy. “

Top researchers prefer to go to Germany or Switzerland, Kouwenhoven and Van der Hagen tell Delta. Salaries and research budgets are much higher there. “In those countries, start-up packages for new researchers are five to ten million euros,” says Van der Hagen.

The current dean of Applied Sciences, Lucas van Vliet, points out that he is also seeing more and more people leaving for the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. “Recently one of our top researchers in the field of catalysis, Jorge Gascon, went there. We can no longer focus on recruiting professors, people who have already proven themselves. That does not work anymore. We have to scout young talent. “

Performance profiles of chemistry and physics
Below: Performance profile of chemistry and physics in the Netherlands compared to the worldwide portfolio. This is a measure for the amount of research (global mean = 1).
Above: The citation-impact score. This is a measure of the quality of the research (world average = 1) Source: Rathenau Institute

The fact that the sciences have a hard time in the Netherlands is also shown by hard figures. A look at the most recent performance profiles of chemistry and physics in the Netherlands shows that Dutch science is going downhill. The performance profiles indicate how well the Netherlands is doing compared to seventeen other developed (reference) countries when it comes to the number of publications. Among those other countries are the United States, China, Japan and most Western European neighbours. The performance profiles are compiled every few years by the Dutch Rathenau Institute.

Delta was given access to the most recent figures from 2017 (which are unfortunately not yet included in the graph). Last year, the Netherlands scored 0.54 in both areas of science. This means that the other countries now publish, in proportion to their population, almost twice as much in physics and chemistry as the Netherlands. Fifteen years ago, Dutch physicists scored a 0.9; ten percent lower than the ‘world average’. Chemists then scored 0.8. (see the bottom two lines in the graph.)

The top two lines in the graph show that the citation impact score is also going downhill. Between 2006 and 2009, Dutch publications on physics and chemistry were still 80 percent and almost 60 percent more cited than the world average. In 2017 these percentages fell to 61 percent more (physics) and 44 percent more (chemistry).