13 January 2006
President van Luijk,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Let me begin by saying what an honour it is for me to open the 164th Dies Celebration of Delft University of Technology. For more than a century and a half, this institution has played an important role in the building and modernisation of the Netherlands. It has carved out a strong reputation across Europe in the process.
It has also contributed to the rich heritage of Delft itself. For hundreds of years, this city has been a centre of painting, technology, arts, scientific discovery and trade – a sort of Europe in microcosm. Sons and daughters of Delft are famous across the world, in particular the ‘father of microbiology’, Antony Van Leeuwenhoek, and the painter Johannes Vermeer.
This makes the title of my speech today all the more pertinent. Not because I will discuss with you whether the Europe we know today is the result of art or science. The chemistry of the inner workings of Brussels I leave to your own imagination. But rather: should we be creating a Europe of art, or a Europe of science? Certainly both are important, and particularly since the Renaissance, Europe has excelled at both. Constant innovation in art and science has helped Europe to enjoy both rapid development and unparalleled cultural wealth.
The arts are flourishing in Europe. People visit galleries in record numbers, more books are being published than ever before, the creative industries have become major players in Europe’s economy. In the last year or so, I have attended no less than four pan-European conferences gathering together artists and other cultural operators to debate issues that concern them. Europe’s cultural diversity is one of its strong points, without doubt. For that reason I brought together yesterday a distinguished group of Europeans, representatives of all the arts, in Brussels and discussed with them exactly this topic.
The picture for science, research and technology is more mixed, and in some respects, the long-term trends are alarming. The EU invests about a third less in research than the US. Its R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP is stagnating while research investment in China grows at 20 per cent a year. There is a growing tendency of multinationals to transfer their research operations out of Europe to other countries, and increasingly to Asia, to take advantage of the expertise that is rapidly developing in the world’s new emerging economies.
Europe attracts fewer students from other countries than the US, especially in core subjects for innovation like engineering, informatics and maths. And three-quarters of EU-born students studying for their PhD in the US say they prefer to stay there after graduating.
Of course, there is also good news. About a third of the top 25 R&D-investing companies in the world are from the EU, including the biggest one – Daimler-Chrysler. European companies still lead the way in technological sectors like mobile telephony and automobiles. And I know Delft University of Technology still attracts the brightest minds from across the world, keen to learn from your expertise in hydraulic engineering, for example.
But the warning signals are there. If we are serious about building a dynamic Europe of growth and jobs, a knowledge-based society which uses education, research and innovation as engines for sustainable growth, then there is no time to lose. We must act now. For Europe, it must never be a question of art or science, but art and science. And the Europe of science needs modernisation if it is to lead the world once more and contribute to making our continent fit for the challenges of the 21st century.
The informal gathering of European leaders at Hampton Court last October recognised this. During a wide-ranging discussion on preparing Europe for the challenges and opportunities of globalisation, both universities and research and development were singled out as priorities for further work which will be taken forward by the European Commission.
Nor was this the first time these areas have fallen under the spotlight: universities and research are central to the renewed Lisbon Strategy for growth and jobs as well. Why? Because the performance of developed economies is closely related to their ability to create, disseminate and apply knowledge – the three corners of the ‘knowledge triangle’.
We must create a new impetus to increase significantly Europe’s research and development and innovative capacity. It is especially important to have more leading companies working in areas like information and communication technology, space, nanotechnology and biotechnology – a subject, I am pleased to see, which will be taken up by Professor Pronk in a moment, in his Dies Natalis lecture.
We have to continue efforts to make Europe a more attractive place to invest in R&D, and stem the outward flow of Europe’s best and brightest.
The European Commission is working on a number of initiatives in these areas, including in the first quarter of this year the identification of specific actions which will contribute to the growth of European innovative firms, in particular small and medium-sized enterprises. We will also look at how state aid legislation and competition rules are applied in order to facilitate research and innovation.
An autonomous European Research Council, which will invite bottom-up proposals from scientists without any thematic or national constraints, should be up and running by 1 January 2007, with a budget of at least €1 billion a year. In fact a peer group of 22 distinguished European scientists, who will select research proposals for funding purely on the basis of their scientific excellence, has already been set up and started its work.
Modernising Europe’s higher education sector is also a priority. There is broad agreement that there is enormous potential here, but this potential is not being tapped and put to work effectively. To do this, several obstacles have to be overcome first.
In analysing these obstacles, let me abstract from the question whether these fall under Brussels’ competences – that is not my point. We should simply look at the general European interest.
First of all, we need to break down barriers - between universities and between universities and enterprises. This can only be done if we get rid of restrictive national regulations, if we enhance confidence in degrees from other Member States and if we improve on the low level of transnational mobility among students and staff. Otherwise, higher education in most Member States will continue to lack critical mass in all or many disciplines, and curricula will be increasingly out of line with labour market needs.
EU programmes like Erasmus and Marie Curie have a positive effect here, but the fact remains that real effort is still needed from Member States and universities themselves to provide the necessary frameworks.
We also need to reduce the funding gap, and make funding work harder. Resources per student available to universities have declined continuously over recent decades. The growth in student enrolments - while welcome - has not been matched by a proportionate growth in funding. And universities in Europe have not been able to - or perhaps I should say, been allowed to - make up the difference from private sources.
The investment deficit affecting higher education is now so huge, that to close the funding gap with the US, for example, Europe would need to spend an additional €10,000 per student per year. It is difficult to see how we are going to compete with the best in the world if steps are not taken to reduce this gap.
We need to combine real autonomy with accountability for universities. Member State governments value their universities so highly that they sometimes embrace them a little too tightly. Micro-management, the imposition of excessive uniformity: the effect can be stifling. Without real autonomy and accountability, universities will be neither responsive nor entrepreneurial.
The balance of responsibility must shift. The public responsibility of governments should be to build up and orientate the higher education sector as a whole. Ideally, universities should have the freedom and responsibility to set their own priorities and programmes; to decide on their own organisation; to manage their own physical, financial and intellectual assets, their budgets and their partnerships; to recruit and pay their staff appropriately and to target their collective efforts towards institutional priorities in research, teaching and services.
University autonomy has a purpose and is not a privilege aimed at making universities immune from society: universities need to accept that they are fully accountable to society for their results and their cost-efficiency.
We need to boost research and innovation in universities to strengthen the science base and increase the leverage effect on R&D investment by the private sector.
Creative interaction between universities, scientists and researchers on the one hand, and industry and commerce on the other, helps drive technology transfer and innovation. That is why international competition is now particularly fierce not only for scientists and technologists, but also for managers and entrepreneurs able to transform the outcomes of R&D into growth and jobs. We lose this competition at our peril.
Let me illustrate this with a personal anecdote. Last year I invited European Nobel Prize winners to Brussels to discuss with them the importance of knowledge and innovation. We debated the issue for hours. They reacted particularly positively to the idea of a European Research Council, which I mentioned earlier. When asked why so many of them spend a large part of their career in the US, the answer I got from one of them was very simple: “I am over 80 years old and still active because there are no restrictions; in Europe I would have been forced to retire!”.
Finally, we need to acknowledge and reward excellence at the highest level. Europe needs to build-up excellence at the most advanced levels, in particular through structured postgraduate and doctoral/postdoctoral schools. This means competitive procedures for the admission of students and candidates, and for the hiring and promotion of faculty. Over time it will allow a number of universities to offer a challenging environment to talented students and researchers and increase their attractiveness as a result.
Excellence needs flagships: Europe should have something like a strong European Institute of Technology, bringing together the best brains and companies and disseminating the results throughout Europe.
Much work has been carried out on this idea since the European Commission first proposed it a year ago. In fact, Delft University of Technology has been among the many organisations giving strong support and feedback for the idea in public consultations.
It would be premature to go into details on this project, but at this stage of the reflection, we are concentrating on a concept that takes account of all the views and reservations we have heard. So far, a European Institute of Technology could be a form of organisation performing high level education, research and innovation activities, both in some strategic thematic areas and in the field of science and innovation management.
To avoid reinventing the wheel, it should be based on the principle of pooling existing European resources.
If the Spring European Council in March gives the green light to go ahead, a legislative proposal to establish a European Institute of Technology could be put forward by this summer. If received favourably, it could start its first steps in the academic year 2009/10.
Ladies and gentlemen,
If shortcomings in the Europe of Science are receiving such attention at the moment, it is not because it is more important or more desirable than a Europe of Art. Both are equally important. Art and science are the legs on which Europe stands. So we would do well to make sure that the conditions are always right for both to flourish.
Vermeer saw little distinction between art and science. He experimented with new technology, in particular 17th century optical science, to develop his own, unique style. It is even said that the scientist Van Leeuwenhoek may have shown him how to use a camera obscura, paving the way for some of his greatest masterpieces.
I can think of no better image of the sort of Europe I would like to see. Not a Europe of Art. Not a Europe of Science. A Europe of Art and Science.