”Melanie Peters emphasised that science, technology and innovation can only flourish if they incorporate public values such as humanity, inclusiveness and human rights
Foreword Annual Report 2021
In 2021, the Rathenau Instituut celebrated its 35th anniversary. A celebration was planned for the autumn, with a magazine in which stakeholders could say something about the institute, perhaps even an anniversary volume. As a precursor, an anniversary meeting of former employees was held on 18 June. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 measures, it had to take place online but the enthusiastic performance of the guest of honour did everyonea lot of good. In shirt sleeves, former Minister of Education, Culture and Science Wim Deetman explained why he founded the Rathenau Instituut in 1986 and why it still plays an important role today.
Not long afterwards, everything changed. In mid-August, staff and management received the shocking news that director Melanie Peters had died. A bundle of indestructible energy was no more. Melanie Peters, the woman who was always on hand everywhere, who had a kind word for everyone and made time for them. Her death resonates in the Rathenau Instituut to this day.
Melanie had been ill for some time. She had been quite open about this but did not want to be treated like a patient. Few people realised that she had a serious illness. Just as she did at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when most office work had ceased, Melanie continued to pay window visits to colleagues during the second year of the pandemic. Through extensive e-mails, she kept all the homeworkers informed of what everyone was doing
In those e-mails, she also talked about her own activities, including her digital visit to the Social Affairs and Employment Committee of the House of Representatives, in which she explained how our institute could assist the committee’s work. In the Portuguese Parliament, she explained (also digitally) why it was important for elected representatives to have scientific advice. She closed every e-mail with a picture of herself or an avatar with an uplifting comment, such as “Take care of each other” or “Hang on in there, it’s almost spring”.
Melanie’s death and COVID-19 left an indelible mark on the second major issue on the agenda in 2021. For the first time since 2008, the Rathenau Instituut is again presiding over the EPTA network, the international association of over 20 institutes doing similar work. At the end of April, Melanie chaired the directors’ meeting that decided to produce a joint publication on the ways different countries were responding to COVID-19 and the lessons learned. The final report was presented at an online conference in the autumn, without Melanie.
Opening up society with a QR code
The Rathenau Instituut sent a Message to Parliament about COVID-19 earlier in 2021. This concerned the government’s plans to open up society again a little by introducing what was then referred to as a COVID-19 passport, subsequently known as the QR code. We drew the attention of the House of Representatives to the various fundamental and human rights that this violated. We also emphasised the importance of periodically assessing whether this passport was still necessary.
It was an example of the advice and reports that the Rathenau Instituut is known for. Or as Melanie said in 2020: “What our digital future looks like is largely up to us. The Rathenau Instituut helps citizens, politicians, policymakers and civil society organisations to understand this.”
“Digital society” is one of the four themes in the 2021- 2022 work programme, in addition to “making perfect lives”, “democratic information society” and “robust science and knowledge ecosystems”. The thirteen reports and eight Messages to Parliament published in 2021 provide important insights into these themes, which are discussed below in this annual report. The same applies to the thirty-one dialogue sessions held.
Dialogues at community centres and theatres
At this juncture, I would like to mention a number of eye-catching reports. For example, we completed the DNA dialogue that we had been organising with other institutions for three years on the subject of modifying DNA from embryos. Based on interviews held in community centres and theatres, at fairs and in schools, it appears that the Dutch are not fundamentally opposed to the new CRISPR-Cas technology that could make this possible. This must be subject to strict conditions and done for specific purposes though, such as the prevention of serious hereditary diseases.
In 2021, we also completed a study on ways of improving public engagement with science. Case studies of public engagement in research into psychiatry, education and water quality show, among other things, that it can lead to more relevant research results. This, in turn, can help to consolidate trust in science.
Our three-yearly survey shows that the Dutch had a high level of trust in science in 2021. At 7.4, the score that the Dutch gave for trust in science was higher than ever. But, partly based on work with focus groups, we also warned that this trust could quickly evaporate again if the dividing line between science and politics became blurred.
Investing in science
How much the Dutch government, industry and non- profit sector invest in science is shown in our annual TWIN report. The 2021 edition shows a substantial increase over the coming years, especially thanks to the National Growth Fund.
A new fact sheet on China’s performance shows that we are certainly not the only country to see the importance of investing in science and innovation. Twenty-five years ago, China was spending as much on R&D as the Netherlands, now it spends as much as the twenty-seven EU countries combined. It will probably not be long before it overtakes the United States as well.
Humanity and inclusiveness
The year 2021 also heralded in some administrative changes. After eight years of heartfelt commitment as chair of the board, Gerdi Verbeet will pass the baton to the undersigned in the summer. For Gerdi, humanity and contact with others is at the heart of the Rathenau Instituut’s work. She hopes these values will continue to be safeguarded in future.
After Melanie’s death, the board and staff took the time to consider who should take over as head of the Rathenau Instituut. To allow breathing space for this, Henk de Jong, an experienced interim manager, was appointed in October for at least six months.
The year 2021 is etched into our memory by the passing of Melanie Peters. She emphasised that science, technology and innovation can only flourish if they incorporate public values such as humanity, inclusiveness and human rights. We are determined to make that legacy grow and prosper.
Chair of the Rathenau Instituut Board