Who really shapes our bioengineered future?


Who makes the decisions for our technological future?

All right, in our introductory post you could read why we want to know who shapes the technologies that we use every day. Especially since it seems that the rate of new technological developments which we adopt is increasing and literally every aspect of our live is influenced by them. But do you as a person have any control over the development of new technologies? In other words, is the development process of these technologies democratic? Take the Nanolab at the University of Twente, where research into biotechnology is being conducted. Do we as ordinary citizens influence anything about the lab-on-a-chip at all?

In this post I will try to take a look at how the research behind new technologies is funded. This is important to understand because decisions regarding money will likely have a big impact on how our technologies are developed. My starting point is to spend a few hours doing research on the internet. The information that I will find will be shared with you in this blog.

Cash flows in research

In Holland there are three ways for a research group at an university to get funding. These are divided into three separate cash flows, called ‘geldstromen’. Although the distinction between these flows are becoming increasingly vague and intertwined, it is still useful to list them here to get a sense of how the cash flows from society to research projects is divided.

The first cash flow is money which comes directly from the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW). This money is granted to the universities as a lump sum, and they can spend it however they like, on whatever research project they think is best suited. The Ministry of OCW does try to influence how this money is spend by setting up a document in which they outline the desired strategic direction of scientific research (Wetenschapsvisie 2025).

The second cash flow also is money from the government, but this is given to independent public institutions, the most notably being the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). Researchers can apply for a grant to fund their research. The NWO then decides whether or not this type of research should receive the grant, thereby exerting considerable influence on what kinds of research is being conducted. Closely related to the NWO is the Royal Dutch Academy of Science (KNAW). This institution does not give out grants, but does have a major advisory role in the field science, and does thereby exert influence on how research funding is spent.

Finally the third cash flow consists of projects on a contract basis paid primarily by private companies. While since 2000 the direct government subsidies of research are declining, this contractual type of funding is increasingly becoming important to finance research in the last few years. Intuitively this also probably poses the most problems for democratic technological development. Large companies with a lot of money can have  major influence on the research going on in universities. See for example the substantial investments of BP in the Physics of Complex Fluids of the University of Twente. Even though it might be unclear whether everyone in our society favours this type of research, the infrastructure of the UT, a public institution, is used for it.

Why is one type of research funded and not another?

The explanation above is a very rough outline on who divides the funding for research projects. But it does not really shed light on what basis this funding is divided. However, the above mentioned institutions do have some guidelines on how to choose between different research projects. What can we know about the way they make decisions to allocate their financial resources, just from looking for information on the internet?


Well, the first cash flow given by the government to the universities can generally be spent as the universities see fit. The ministry of OCW does have some guidelines set up in a strategic document containing the vision for scientific research until 2025. If one takes a look in that document however, there are no concrete clues on what topics the research money should be spend. The document talks about valorisation, about closing the gap between science and society, and about women in science. But these subjects do not give clear directions to guide the type of research which is conducted. Therefore we cannot assess whether investments into the Nanolab by the University of Twente are a good thing.

As for the second cash flow, the NWO decides which research projects are eligible for funding. They make these decisions based on advice by independent experts. These experts which give an advice about the research proposal to a board of other experts. These then together decide if the proposal should get funding. On the one hand this seems like a good way to go, letting experts who have knowledge about the subject decide what the best way is to spend our hard earned tax money. But on what basis do these experts decide what is good for you, me and the rest of society?

In a similar way, experts play a role in the allocation of private cash flows. Here we have experts from the bigger corporations who dictate the direction of the research which their companies are funding. In principle there is of course nothing wrong with solving problems for companies which in the end increase the welfare of our society. Such things should even be encouraged. However we must realize that this is not a democratic process. Solving BP’s oil production problems will give us better access to fossil fuels, but it might also defer competent researchers from doing research into more sustainable technologies for example. I’m not arguing that one type of research is inherently better than another, but we do need to be aware of the grounds on how these choices are made if we want to have any control over where we are going as a society.

To conclude, why should bioresearch be funded?

So what does this whole story tell us? Can we now, after browsing a couple of hours on the internet looking for this information, form an educated guess on the reasons underlying the funding of bioresearch in the Nanolab at the University of Twente? In my opinion the strategic document from the government is too abstract to give any real idea of why they want biotechnology to be developed using the first cash flow. A combination of experts and peer reviews on the one hand for the second cash flow, and market pull of innovations on the other hand for the third, also do not give concrete clues as to why biotechnology is funded at the Nanolab. While these methods are certainly not a terrible way of steering technological development, there are initiatives that explicitly try to take societal interests into the research process. Even so, I don’t really see any initiatives like the Nationale Wetenschaps Agenda (NWA) or the Topsectorenbeleid mentioned as part of the decision criteria. That being said, I think it is difficult to be able to assess the influence of these kind of initiatives on the funding decisions in science from behind a computer. For that I will need to get out into the real world to talk to these organisations themselves. And that is what I will do for the next blog on funding & control.  


P.S. If you have any ideas on this subject or think there is something missing, let me know in the comments!

Erik van de Pieterman | CORRESPONDENT funding & control


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1 Comment

  1. Frank van de Pieterman

    “In principle there is of course nothing wrong with solving problems for companies which in the end increase the welfare of our society.”

    I think the research of firms is to increase revenues and profit, not to increase welfare for society. Loosening control seems likely to increase, for example, environmental disaster.

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