TUE Martijn Heck

Martijn Heck is the scientific director of the Eindhoven Hendrik Casimir Institute.

13 December 2023

Technological independence is key to a successful nationalistic regime that closes its borders, observes Martijn Heck.

In one of my favorite episodes of South Park, an American animated sitcom, the soon-to-be-president Mr. Garrison rouses the masses in the US to build a wall to keep out Canadian immigrants. When he and his followers arrive at the northern border, he realizes that Canada has already built a wall to keep out the Americans.

Nationalism is back all over Europe. The Netherlands is no exception, given the victory of right-wing parties in the recent elections. It’s a relatively new phenomenon for the Dutch, so it may be wise to review some consequences of nationalism. After all, the Dutch have been the inventors of globalism, for better or for worse, so we have some catching up to do in this field.

The lesson that the South Park episode teaches us is that if you want to close the borders for others, the others close their borders for you. And they’ll stop sharing their ‘cool stuff.’ This means that the Netherlands will have some trouble continuing its leading role in logistics, in our Mainport Rotterdam area, and finance and services, in our ‘Airport’ Amsterdam area. Instead, our efforts will have to be aimed towards our own direct needs because, hey, ‘independence and sovereignty’ and ‘made in Holland,’ right?

Since technology is critical these days, that also means technological independence. That’s not a new concept. Countries with a notoriously nationalistic and isolated position invest heavily in technology. Israel is a leader in deep tech because it’s vital for its national security in an otherwise hostile region. China is quickly ramping up its semiconductor sector after having been squeezed off by the US. Poland isn’t well known as a leader in semiconductors but after having been invaded from all sides throughout history (typically after saving Europe), it knows it can’t rely on others for anything. And, of course, Germany scooped up a large amount of Nobel Prizes in its early decades of being a new nation-state, building a track record that we now know as German engineering.

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It’s safe to say that technological independence is key to a successful nationalistic regime. Unless you want to end up like North Korea. Even Russia doesn’t have chips for the rockets it launches at Ukraine. So future Prime Minister Wilders will be happy to hear that we have a Brainport Eindhoven region, where the Netherlands is actually leading in deep tech. He thus has his bargaining chips (pun intended) to throw over the closed borders. The solution presents itself: just reinvest the national budgets for Amsterdam and Rotterdam in Eindhoven and we should be good to go with ‘the Netherlands first.’

Except for one tiny problem. ASML CEO Peter Wennink recently highlighted somewhat provocatively that the Dutch are “fat, dumb and happy” and may not be suitable for the competitive world of deep tech. Because technology, indeed, is hard – you actually have to study and have talent. His statement was backed up by the (in)famous consultant McKinsey. In a report “Toetsen getoetst,” they point out that the mathematical skills of our younger generation have gone down over time. Math is obviously a prerequisite for deep tech. However, since we have become less demanding, the grades are actually higher now. It’s like vanity sizing: clothes are labeled with smaller sizes so we feel better about ourselves.

Wennink and McKinsey therefore agree: we’re fat, dumb and happy. Luckily, conservative parties tend to prioritize mathematics education in school, so there’s hope – 10 years from now. In the meantime, I suggest we leave the border gates slightly ajar for international engineers.

I’ll end on a positive note. Please take a break from politics and policies and enjoy South Park. Might I suggest season 19, episode 2?