No pain, no gain

Having a good relationship with the business world is of great importance to the RUG and, as such, will be pursued more actively from now on. As far as applied physics professor Jeff Th. M. De Hosson is concerned, that’s totally fine. Not only is it fine, but the university should take it a step further still, and quickly. ‘Passion and ambition are still missing.’


Coca Cola University

Rector Elmer Sterken stated during the opening of the academic year that he wants to strengthen the university’s bonds with industry.

In an editorial response, Sandra Beckerman and Daan Brandenbarg wrote: ‘The RUG cannot become a Coca Cola University.’

On the contrary, applied physics professor Jeff Th. M. De Hosson wants the RUG to pursue such connections even more fervently.

‘Immediately cut ties with industry. Choose long-term, fundamental and independent research in all faculties. Our university cannot become Coca Cola University’, wrote Sandra Beckerman and Daan Brandenbarg in their recent editorial.

Coca Cola University? Not that some old argument again!
It wasn’t so long ago that universities were a central place for a small group of intellectuals to focus more or less undisturbed on their research and on sharing their knowledge with an exclusive group of students.

I was appointed professor of applied physics myself in 1977. That time period was an offshoot of those days of elitism, a time when any given laboratory consisted of: a professor (preferably dressed entirely in black with a dishevelled air about him); a handful of underpaid assistants, awed to be in his presence; an instrument maker; and a care taker.

Back then, the university community was living in a somewhat withdrawn and out-of-touch bubble, and the university was not terribly interested in what the rest of society was up to. Exchange and contact between the university and the business world was minimal, but in light of the static nature of the academic world at the time, that was acceptable.

More dynamic

But through the years, things have changed. Society has become more dynamic (to put it mildly) as a result of, among other things, the rapid development of the natural sciences and their applicability. Progress has brought about stronger connections and more frequent exchanging of knowledge within a triangle (albeit irregular) consisting of three points: research, industry/technology and society.

In the name of this progress, the university has had to give up quite a lot of it ownership of research to industrial, national and international labs. A monopoly on research has been lost to academia, and thus to the RUG, for good.

As a consequence of the changed character of society, the self-evident role of the University of Groningen has also changed dramatically: this university’s role has become more challenging and all encompassing. It is utter nonsense to suggest that ‘fundamental research’ is the domain of universities alone.


The RUG used to be introverted, but people can – and should – expect modern universities to be more outward looking and open to society’s demands.

The UK’s audience will be familiar with the modern assumption that universities should play a prominent role when it comes to topics such as ‘knowledge economy’, ‘innovation platform’ and ‘top sectors’, although I sometimes get the feeling that the government (some House members think that research will mean pay off straight away, but you have to spend money before you can make it) is more interested in the ‘economy’ part than the ‘knowledge’ part.

This process of adapting the university’s role was and remains a daunting process with a goodly amount of energy dissipation due to ‘friction’. But my counterargument is this: no pain, no gain.

‘Not done’

I can recall when I was invited to address the faculty council back in 1978 because our applied physics students were required to do an industrial internship during their studies to become an engineering physicist. That was not done. Contact with industry was to be avoided, because we were – and are – all about pure research.
I took a beating, but the experience didn’t leave any lasting damage. What’s more, the industrial internship has been a required part of the programme since the ‘70s!

‘The Coca Cola University’ and ‘Cut the cord with industry’… it’s symptomatic of the same fear of interaction with the outside world – calls for ‘conducting fundamental research’, blah, blah, blah – that characterised the discussion 40 years ago as well. We keep going ‘round and ‘round with these same arguments. My advice? Make sure that in your business connections, you are the one in the driver’s seat.

Far too modest?

The rector magnificus’ exhortation to pursue further interaction with industry was actually quite modest: gentle, cautious encouragement, as is befitting a rector. The speech was certainly nothing to make you mad enough to say, ‘We are not disappointed. We are angry – very angry.’

Passion and ambition are still missing. I would have applauded much harder if the rector had revealed instead that that RUG would be collaborating with Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, Max-Planck Gesellschaft and TNO to open an ultra modern applied sciences institute at the Zernike Campus to give more practical meaning to the Coca Cola University: Taste the feeling.

I guess I’ll just have to wait until next year for that announcement.

Jeff Th.M. De Hosson, applied physics professor




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