The Dutch Spinoza Prize isn’t for Spinoza

NWO is the Dutch Organisation for Scientific Research and it regularly hands out the Spinoza Prize to the sum of EUR 2.5 million per winner. Spinoza himself would not qualify for the Prize since the candidates must have a tenured position – unless the desk that he worked on can be counted as an international center of excellence.

While NWO looks like a scientific organisation it also destroys scientific freedom. It assists in the censorship of science in Holland. It uses a marketing ploy to act as if it advances science, while in fact it ensnares those minds that otherwise could roam freely.

The winners 2012 are Mike Jetten, Ieke Moerdijk, Annemarie Mol and Xander Tielens. The Prize puts them in the luxurious but also responsible position to allocate their joint EUR 10 million wisely. The greatest exercise in responsibility would be to refuse the Prize. They would tell the world that science ought not partake in a sham and masquerade.

Is NWO really a scientific organisation ? The funds are from Dutch Ministries, supposedly without strings attached. But the government has been shifting funds away from the universities towards NWO and “partnerships” with market companies, so NWO might be regarded as a string itself. The board is appointed by the crown and the director worked at the Ministry of Economic Affairs before, though the latter doesn’t say anything in itself since it might also be that he fled from bureaucracy to scientific freedom. There is no democractic process by which managerial positions are voted on by scientists. NWO is part and parcel of a management structure where programs are formulated, project proposals judged and managed, and results marketed. Success in research is measured like in citation scores. This conserves the practice of commercial publishing companies, while scientists in a democratic process might well use the funds to speed up the open source publication process, and allow a bit more for books than articles. Scientific organisation is still rather medieval, with first an M.A. or M.Sc. then a Ph.D. and then a possible professorship. John Maynard Keynes was never a professor. Becoming a professor will to a large extent be a matter of luck and having the right connections, and then the medieval hierarchy creates an amazingly great number of biased people who tend to pull rank. Undeniably there are hundreds of honest people in the NWO network trying to do science (and all have the benefit of the doubt without proof of the contrary), and clearly there are papers published in the international journals, and possibly Dutch science is a “success” in that respect, but there are also reasons to be critical. Why can scientists not be respected and allowed their own responsibility, why do politicians put so many restraints upon them ? What, also, is the research that does not come out of NWO ? What are the names and ideas that we do not hear about ?

NWO might give an example such as “Last year we rejected a proposal for a perpetuum mobile” but I am suggesting that there is a better model to finance science. Universities might agree that they can use the funds much better (though we also may be critical of universities).

For example, there is still this issue for NWO, and it still isn’t resolved. That it is old does not mean that it has been solved. (Unfortunately this is in Dutch only.)

When the winners 2012 were announced, it was mentioned that there had been 28 candidates. Only top institutes can nominate candidates so these 28 must have been top candidates. Or, given that we are critical about these institutes, these 28 are equal to be critical about. By a curious process of discussion, perhaps weighing, seizing, multiplication and taking roots, or perhaps throwing dice, the committee finally took 4 from those 28.

For NWO it is a no-brainer. The money would be spent anyway. By heaping a lot of money on a few  there can be a Media Event such that tv and newspapers have something to report on. Not because of a result but because of money. Each M.A. or M.Sc. interested in science would already know how to spend the funds, or at least know how to find out how to spend it. The Prize curiously gives that freedom and responsibility that scientists could be trusted with anyway (yes, if they are scientists). To suggest that you need to be “special” to be respected with that responsibility is actually disrespectful to science.

After his burial, Spinoza’s body was removed by vandals in the night, and the memorial grave in The Hague is actually empty. Thus, technically, Spinoza cannot turn in his grave. Technically, though, few could do so anyway after death. Hence we may still imagine Spinoza virtually spinning in his grave.

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