Dutch Academic Network in the UK on Dutch-British Research and Innovation Collaboration

The Netherlands Innovation Network UK, based at the Embassy of the Netherlands in London, conducted an interview with Prof. Martijn Zwijnenburg, the Chair of the Dutch Academic Network in the U.K. (DANinUK) and Professor at University College London on the importance of Dutch-British research and innovation collaboration. This collaboration remains evidently important now the UK has left the EU.

The Netherlands Innovation Network UK is organising a number of events in collaboration with DANinUK, including a webinar on post-Brexit innovation & research cooperation between NL-UK. Make sure to follow their LinkedIn page Netherlands Innovation Network UK to stay up-to-date.

Please contact DANinUK for support as a Dutch academic in the UK or get in touch with the Netherlands Innovation Network UK if we can help facilitate Dutch-British research and innovation collaboration or if you would like to share your suggestions for research collaboration opportunities between the NL and UK in the new constellation. 

Research and innovation thrive by the exchange of ideas, and bringing people from outside in

Prof. Martijn Zwijnenburg, could you tell a bit more about your background and why you moved to the UK?

I am a computational chemist, and I completed my PhD in Chemical Engineering in Delft. My supervisor completed his PhD in the UK, and recommended me to go to the UK when I was close to finishing my PhD. I applied for a Marie Curie Grant, and moved to London in the beginning of 2005 to do a post-doc at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. 

I lived in London for two years which I very much enjoyed, and after my research fellowship in Barcelona I returned to the UK in 2010 to take up an EPSRC fellowship at University College London. Ten years later I am still here. The reason to return to London was to a large extent driven by the fact that I met my now wife, who is British, during my postdoc and we decided to both look for jobs in the UK and the Netherlands. However, we had our first success in Britain.

Having worked in academia in both the Netherlands and the UK, what would you say is the difference in research culture between the two countries?

Of course this very much depends on which academic field you are in, but from my own experience the Dutch research system is a bit more traditionally structured compared to the British one. A lot of the Dutch researchers know each other and work together in large research collaborations with projects spanning across multiple Dutch universities. When I left the Netherlands, there was still a quite traditional structure within academia, although that seems to be now changing rapidly.

In the UK, the research culture is more flexible but also more individualistic. When I moved to the UK as an EPSRC research fellow and lecturer, I was my own boss from the onset. In the UK you have a lot more control as a researcher instead of belonging to big research groups like in the Netherlands. Also, in the UK it is easier to get funding for smaller projects or things you are only working on yourself compared to the Netherlands. However, in the UK you might also lose some of the advantages of the very structured Dutch research culture.

How would you describe the importance of research and innovation cooperation between the Netherlands and the UK?

A lot of science that drives innovation happens in large consortia, and it is a lot more difficult to make this happen in isolation. Most of the large problems we face require cooperation between countries. When specifically talking about the Netherlands and the UK, I think we are dealing with shared problems, and there is very much a shared culture, so we are ideal partners in that respect, also geographically. Besides, there is a large number of companies that are active in both countries. On top of that, research thrives by the exchange of ideas, bringing people from outside in, and sending people from your country to the other to exchange ideas.

Where would you see opportunities for research collaboration post-Brexit?

For the field of research and innovation, Brexit doesn’t necessarily result in a gain or opportunity. However, if we are smart, there are opportunities for Dutch and British science and science funders to strengthen the relationship post-Brexit. On an individual basis, scientists in the UK have good contacts with the Netherlands. There are also some partnerships on university level: for example, Maastricht University has a cooperation with the University of York, and the University of Amsterdam has a partnership with the University of Birmingham.

However, we need more structural government action from a funding perspective. An example would be a bilateral funding mechanism for Dutch-British research and innovation projects, where we can exploit the joint strengths that are present. This is an opportunity for Dutch and British research funders and ministries, and we need proactivity from the Dutch government in this field.

What would be your advice for Dutch researchers and innovators planning on moving to the UK?

We live in uncertain times, but we still live in a connected world and people should still move to the UK to follow their ambitions. The UK has excellent research groups and universities – and people shouldn’t be held back by Brexit. Having said that, compared to when I moved here, there is going to be a lot more planning in advance. For post-doc positions in the UK, the changes won’t be such a big problem as people from all over the world are hired for these positions and visa procedures are routine. However, the fees for studying in the UK or completing a PhD do depend on nationality and will substantially increase for Dutch nationals, so this is a problem we will need to find a solution for. Finally, my last word of advice is that if you are coming to the UK, I would encourage you to get in touch with DANinUK -  we have a mentor network, and we are here to help you and provide you with a platform. 

Lastly, a couple more questions on DANinUK. How did the idea emerge for the Dutch Academic Network in the UK (DANinUK) and how did you get involved?

As many things in contemporary Britain, it all goes back to June 2016: the vote on Brexit. With the referendum, although many of us had an inkling of what might happen, the result still came as a surprise. For a lot of Dutch researchers in the UK, this raised questions around uncertainty about their status and their future in the UK, and to a certain extent, the vote made them feel more Dutch. It might be that this uncertainty about our future in the UK made us search for a new sense of security and hence rediscovering our Dutch identity.

For me personally, I didn’t do that many “Dutch things” in the UK before Brexit – going to the Embassy to get my new passport or going to a Queen’s Day party were my main Dutch activities. However, the Brexit vote made me connect stronger with other Dutch researchers in the UK.

At the same time, there was uncertainty about future research collaboration and knowledge exchange with EU partners – which is still the case now to a certain extent. To address this uncertainty for Dutch academics , a series of events had been organised by the Embassy of the Netherlands in the UK , which has led to the establishment of an association for Dutch scientists in the UK. DANinUK is still working together with the Embassy of the Netherlands in the UK but is now an independent association.

DANinUK launched officially with a big event in January 2020 and has since organised a webinar together with the Dutch Embassy highlighting the work of Dutch scientists in the UK on COVID-19. We also set up links with sister organisations, connected to the Wellcome trust to jointly focus on preserving the links between the UK and Europe in research cooperation, and set up a partnership with Native Scientist that will allow Dutch-speaking children to be inspired by Dutch scientists in the UK, among other activities.

Image: ©Tom Roberts / Tom Roberts
(January 2020)

What are your goals for DANinUK in 2021 and how can the Netherlands Innovation Network work with you to reach these?

We are organising a number of events together with the Netherlands Innovation Network UK on post-Brexit research cooperation between the Netherlands and the UK: one event aimed at Dutch researchers in the UK and another one aimed at a wider audience to include research and innovation communities in the Netherlands as well.

Besides that, we would also like to contribute to events that the Netherlands Innovation Network in the UK is organising, such as a series of lectures with the Royal Institution which is a great way to offer a platform to Dutch scientists.