At the beginning of this government term, Minister Dijkgraaf initiated the establishment of the National Center of Expertise for Science and Society, abbreviated as NEWS. Last year, two catering officers, Alex Verkade and Ionica Smeets, set to work to figure out what would be needed for such a center. For example, they looked at foreign examples, but also held meetings with people from the field of science communication to gauge what was really needed.
No special research
Dijkgraaf wrote that News does not conduct its own investigations, mainly because the small organization does not have the resources to do so. Furthermore, it is not necessary, as institutions such as colleges and universities often already conduct this type of research, usually in a more efficient manner. The primary mission of NEWS is to enhance the potential and impact of science communication, according to the outgoing minister.
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Before the Minister could establish the institution, the House of Representatives asked some questions. For example, various factions question the independence of the National Expertise Centre. For example, GroenLinks-PvdA is concerned about the unclear role of the Minister in relation to news. However, specific questions about the minister’s formal and informal powers in relation to news remain unanswered.
The D66 faction is also curious about the ways in which NEWS ensures its independence and how this is achieved within the organization. In addition, this party has questions about the relationship between NEWS’ funding and the organization’s independence.
Civil servants are excluded from the Council
In response to these questions, OCW emphasizes that news independence is crucial. According to the Ministry, this independence is secured in several ways. For example, the minister’s powers are limited, and civil servants are excluded from participating in the institution’s board of directors. This would prevent the ministry’s direct influence on the decision-making process within the news.
A steering group with members from many different sectors must also ensure the independence of the news. Although funding for NEWS currently comes exclusively from support from the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, this arrangement is only intended to support NEWS’ status as an independent entity, Dijkgraaf wrote.
Support and ownership
The importance of independence was also confirmed by exploratory research conducted by quartermasters. They point out that foreign examples show that independence is one of the key factors for the success of similar initiatives. This independence ensures broad support and ownership within the field and prevents the center from being too closely linked to specific stakeholders.
Despite its independent status, NEWS is obliged to submit an annual report to the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science on the expenditure of support funds. It must be proven that the supported activities have actually been implemented and that all other support conditions have been met. According to Dijkgraaf, this accountability is part of “a structured dialogue between the Ministry and the NEWS Board of Directors.” The focus must be on transparency and accountability.
Is this the right time?
The BBB faction has expressed reservations about the outgoing status of the government. Is it appropriate to create a foundation with a support of 10 million euros at the end of the government’s term, and why not leave this step to the new Council of Ministers, asks the party that is currently negotiating government participation.
The creation of NEWS and associated funding had already been announced in the Higher Education and Science Policy Letter of June 2022 and was further explained in a letter to Parliament in April 2023, the Minister responds. Therefore, the establishment of NEWS can be seen as an implementation of existing policies that were put in place before the end of the Cabinet term.
Citizens far from informed
In his communication with BBB, the Minister stressed the importance of news for citizens in rural areas and citizens who are not highly educated. “Citizens who are more distant from science, especially in areas outside major cities, have less access to scientific knowledge through education, experience and their networks. This is an undesirable situation, as research becomes more important when it responds to societal questions and when the results actually contribute to improved well-being and prosperity.” “This is an important and valuable role for NEWS,” the minister said in an attempt to convince the BBB of the usefulness and necessity of NEWS.