Paul van Gerven

Paul van Gerven is an editor at Bits&Chips.

5 September 2019

If there’s anything good that came out of the Trump presidency, it may be that Europeans have been jolted from their slumber of false security. Europe should become more assertive, politicians all over the continent argue, and take charge of its own destiny. Such pleas invariably include beefed-up support for R&D, technological development and manufacturing. To think it only took a terrible recession and an even worse US president to get that on the agenda!

Among those whose eyes have opened is Dutch Finance Secretary Wopke Hoekstra. “Our continent’s economic engine is stuck in second gear, and we’re investing very little in the economy of the future. Artificial intelligence, big data, nanotechnology and biotech: we’re hardly doing anything in these fields,” the aspiring CDA party leader warned to a Berlin audience last May while delivering the Humboldt Speech on Europe. He argued for an increase in spending on research and technology development, at the expense of agricultural subsidies – quite a controversial stance in his circles.

In August, another Hoekstra proposal surfaced, a national one this time. Reportedly, the nation’s top financial man, nicknamed ‘Dr. No’, wants to take advantage of the sub-zero interest rates to borrow billions of euros and set up an investment fund for scientific and technology research, among many other things.

As our columnist Marcel Pelgrom recently pointed out (and explained in more detail on Youtube), we Dutchies haven’t always been careful about our technological industry. Indeed, we didn’t worry when unique technologies or businesses were sold to foreign parties, or when traditional STEM studies bled to death. Because, hey, we’re an open economy right? And the future is in services, anyway.

So yes, anything to push back against this still prevalent attitude would be most welcome. In theory, starting an independent fund may be a superior way to start reparations. After all, government budget increases for R&D and tech development likely won’t prove to be permanent once a new recession hits.

However, experiences from the past show that a fund isn’t necessarily safe from politicians’ grabby hands either: the Fonds Economische Structuurversterking ended up paying for many projects it wasn’t intended for. Institutions such as the CBS and the Algemene Rekenkamer question the FES’ overall return on investment. And while the FES funded some important research programs, funding was often awarded ad hoc, sometimes for no other reason than that the money needed to be spent before the end of the year (or else it would be lost to the treasury).

For the ‘Hoekstra fund’, as far as the technology part goes, I would, therefore, like to draw upon the advice the Advisory Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (AWTI) gave former prime minister Jan-Peter Balkenende a long time ago. The Council urged to start a ‘piggy bank’ that would only be used when needed, ie whenever a high-quality project that meets well-defined mission parameters presents itself. So while the fund may not invest the same sum every year, the money won’t be lost. Furthermore, the fund needs to be governed independently, free from meddling by not only politics but also by science and industry. It should be about creating new opportunities, after all.

Speaking of which, the fund shouldn’t be used just to plug holes either. STEM has taken a back seat in governmental circles for too long. That won’t be fixed by taking out a big loan. It will require a government willing to set goals and develop an eclectic approach over many policy areas to make them happen. Without some bold steps in STEM education, for example, we wouldn’t even have to start the fund. The labor market is tight enough as it is.