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Trouble ahead. Decreasing funds and a projected labor shortfall bode ill for Dutch science.

Are the Dutch Losing Their Touch?

By: 
Martin Enserink
2000-09-22 (All day)

Science advocates in the Netherlands are disappointed by the government's 2001 budget, released 19 September in The Hague. To offset years of declining budgets and keep Dutch science competitive, the scientific community had been lobbying for a hefty boost in science spending; instead, the new budget contained a very modest increase.

With two Dutch researchers bagging last year's Nobel Prize for physics and recent analyses rating the Netherlands among the world's scientific leaders, per capita (Science, 7 February 1997, p. 793), there seems little reason to worry. But science advocates say those feats reflect investments made decades ago. As a result of a series of budget cuts over the past 20 years, public and private science spending together have fallen to just over 2% of the gross domestic product--well below that of Japan and the United States, which spend between 2.5% and 3%, and also behind comparably sized countries such as Sweden, Switzerland, and Finland.

Another threat to the country's scientific vigor is a looming shortfall in the research workforce, according to a recent study commissioned by the Dutch parliament. As a result of an imminent retirement wave among senior scientists, paltry pay for young researchers, and the pull of the business world, universities and research organizations could face a shortage of almost 1300 scientists as early as 2003, the study predicts, rising to nearly 3000 in 2008.

To reverse the trend, Education, Culture, and Science Minister Loek Hermans has launched a $60-million-a-year initiative to retain "adventurous" young scientists who might otherwise pursue a career overseas or forsake science altogether. But there's a catch: The universities and the country's main granting agency, NWO, each have agreed to supply one-third of the money out of their own budgets. So although the plan stimulates rejuvenation, it does little to boost overall science funding.

Scientists are giving the spending plan a lukewarm reception. Utrecht University president Jan Veldhuis argues that universities need about $400 million a year more. "We have to take action now," he says, "if we still want to win Nobel Prizes 20 or 30 years from now."

Related sites
The Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science
The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO)

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