The University Challenge to Balance Society’s Increased Expectations Concerning Outreach, Media Attention, as well as Societal and Economic Impact

The University Challenge to Balance Society’s Increased Expectations Concerning Outreach, Media Attention, as well as Societal and Economic Impact

Universities belong to the small number of institutions which were founded centuries ago, and which still exist with a core mission – teaching student and scholarly work – which has stayed intact. This enormous staying power rests on two crucial elements. On the one hand, the drive to remain at the forefront of science is strong enough that universities follow the changes in the way science is being done. At the same time universities are so intertwined with society that changes in society reflect back on them.

I consider it inescapable that societies, and concomitantly universities and their role in society, will change dramatically in the coming 20-25 years. Let’s first look back briefly, focusing on the changes in the Western world and Europe.

In the last 25-30 years, the Western world has by and large drifted more to a capitalist Anglo-Saxon competitive model, with companies focusing on short-term shareholder values and profits, rather than long term outlook and investments. Inequalities in society have increased as a result, in particular in those countries that have followed this trend strongest.

Although the funding models of universities differ substantially throughout Europe, these societal changes are reflected at our universities. External project funding, international rankings and the standing of institutions and scholars – and hence competition – have increasingly become part of the culture.

In addition, the job market and the student population is more international than ever, generating a competition for talent. At the same time society expects more from universities in terms of outreach, media attention, as well as societal and economic impact. Most of our European universities are public universities, and for them combining publicly funded research with innovation and economic impact is particularly nontrivial.

All these external trends have at our universities created a new amalgam, very different from what we have ever seen before in their century-long history.

Meanwhile, there are internal drives for change. Science itself is becoming more diverse. Disciplines like astronomy or particle physics have 60-year old cooperative models for sustaining large facilities which require long-term investments. They were able to do so because they had extreme focus on a well-defined scientific mission, agreed to by all players.

But the grand challenges of a sustainable society, like health, climate, energy, and food are complex issues which are intricately interwoven with politics. And they require new types of large multidisciplinary and transnational teams and programmes, and in some cases facilities. This poses incredible new challenges in bridging disciplinary and cultural gaps. At the same time, there are still individual scientists who after years of isolated work come with a breakthrough or publish a ground-breaking book, and who are our most inspiring teachers. Our research and higher education system has to be able to encompass and bridge all these extremes.

While our science system is already under pressure catering to this increasing diversity of roles and expectations, I do not foresee that the trend will reverse. The world will not de-globalize, societies are unlikely to invite research universities to forget about their scientific and societal impact, and the grand challenges will not simply evaporate or stop at our borders. On the contrary.

Will pressure continue to go up, and will our institutions of higher learning and research just (have to) cope with these trends, by incorporating the increasing demands within the existing model? It is tempting to argue that radical changes are around the corner, or that there will be a major top-down overhaul of the system. I find it hard to imagine. Nevertheless, I am actually moderately optimistic – or is it hopeful and naive? – that a more evolutionary path to a new equilibrium, with again more room for trust, will be found.

To understand why, let us realise that also in the economic arena there is a growing number of companies that are shifting – or trying to shift – their strategy away from maximizing short-term shareholder value towards stronger focus on stakeholder values and on the global challenges and sustainable development goals. They are attempting to find a new balance between contributing to society, by what they offer or produce, and making a profit.

I am fully aware that this is not an easy route within the Anglo-Saxon Western world – some companies that are shifting their strategy are facing hostile takeovers or interventions by investors aimed at maximizing profits. But the companies that try, do find that the loyalty of their employees and the support by the public are going up. And Trump and the Brexit are accelerating the desire to leave the path based on maximum competition and inequality, that increasingly feels like a dead end. Many want to revalue trust as a social capital.

If indeed this trend accelerates, and companies and societies successfully make the change, it may help enormously breaking trends and rebalancing our research and higher education. It opens the way for seeking a new equilibrium between competition for grants and collaborative programmes…

… for setting up new international research programmes and associated organisations

… for rethinking the balance between competition and partnership

… for balancing bottom-up curiosity-driven research by individual scholars with broad thematic programmes aimed at societal challenges and innovation

… for reconsidering our educational programmes and the skills and values we want to instill in the young generation we train

… for public-private partnerships

… for rebuilding trust between university, industry and government.

Clearly, the transition will not be easy, and it is difficult to predict the outcome or details of the arrangements that might emerge. But a shared conviction that this is the way to go will also provide Europe great opportunities and a vision for the future in a global world.

More strongly, I believe that whether our universities and research institutes will make this scenario come true and contribute to addressing global challenges like climate, energy, security, poverty and health, will be intimately tied to how our joint European future will be shaped.


Wim van Saarloos is a groundbreaking scientist in theoretical physics, who has received many awards for his work, among them the Dutch Physica Prize in 2008. Currently. Since June 1 2018 he is the President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) Prior. He helped Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research alter its organisational structure as Transition Director. After obtaining his PhD at Leiden University in 1982, Wim worked for AT&T Bell Laboratories in the USA. He returned to the Netherlands in 1991 as the Professor of Theoretical Physics and later on served as the director of the university’s Lorentz Centre. In 2009 Wim van Saarloos became the director of the FOM foundation, an organsiation which funds research, operates research institutes and promotes collaboration of academia and industry. Wim van Saarloos returned to Leiden University as professor of physics in 2017.

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