Over the years, research has become increasingly subject to public scrutiny. Used to be the sole domain of scientists, it has gained attention from a wide array of actors. Concerns over the amount of money that is involved and the actual relevance to the wider public have spurred discussions among citizens and politicians. One of the most recent initiatives to accommodate these concerns is the so-called National Science Agenda. In an attempt to close the gap between science and society, a Dutch website has been launched (wetenschapsagenda.nl) where citizens can pose their questions and concerns – resulting in a list of key priorities. Yet opinions vary and various scientists are suspicious of any citizen involvement. This leads one to wonder to what extent research should accommodate public concerns and how and when a scientist’s independence should prevail.
Within the setting of IRSP, doing research automatically implies researching something that is of relevance to the wider public. The organization, business, or government institution has a burning question that they would like to see answered. Hence the topic is not simply solely something that we, as researchers, are interested in, yet that results in a report that ends up unread at the very end of the bookshelves. Rather, it concerns a current issue that requires research in order to improve the status quo. With regard to the research for the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, we hope to provide insight into the impact of foreign missions on student mobility, as well as to grant institutions such as universities an opportunity to voice their concerns on the matter. Foreign missions are a hot topic at the moment, with an outgoing mission to China – including Prime Minister Rutte – last week, and both an incoming mission of Chinese delegates and an outgoing mission to Canada coming up. These missions aim at fostering concrete partnerships and are essential in light of so-called Holland Branding. Yet at the same time it is hard to measure their results – especially in terms of student mobility. Effects often only appear in the long run, as student mobility does not increase or decrease overnight. Nonetheless, by identifying inter alia key strengths and weaknesses, we hope to contribute to an improvement of these missions and their effects on student mobility.
In this context, we are currently conducting many interviews, and are experiencing more than ever before that Groningen is truly in the middle of nowhere. Travelling to The Hague for interviews with umbrella organizations of research universities (VSNU), universities of applied science (VH), and the organization for the internationalization of higher education (Nuffic), we almost spend more time in the train than outside. Nonetheless, the interviews are very rewarding and of great value to our research. Hence I am looking forward to the upcoming interviews with the top-7 largest universities in the Netherlands, which are located in Amsterdam, Utrecht, Leiden, Delft, Rotterdam and Groningen.
On a final note, the question of public relevance remains controversial. At the start of any research it is difficult to predict its outcome – no matter how much money is involved. As Neil Armstrong once said: ‘Research is creating new knowledge.’ Yet whether this knowledge is actually relevant can only be determined once it is generated – if it can be at all. In this regard, it only rests me to say that we, as researcher, hope to provide innovate insights that contribute to our understanding of the matter concerned. That being said, we will only now in two months from now whether we managed to succeed.