All Dutch universities wish to give the Netherlands a new and appealing international profile: that of a leading nation in the field of digital technology oriented towards people and societies. Our country can transform itself into a living ‘testing ground’, enabling a rapid exploration of how we can optimally tailor new technology to suit the needs of individual citizens and societies as a whole. Research plays a key role in this respect. A delta plan of this type for the new ‘digital society’ will give the Netherlands major social, scientific and economic opportunities. The research universities of the Netherlands issue this call collectively today, at the opening of the new academic year.

Over the year ahead, research universities in the Netherlands will work jointly on a unique initiative: securing a prominent position for the Netherlands as a highly developed, well-organised knowledge nation with excellent physical, digital and social infrastructure. VSNU President Karl Dittrich: ‘Just as our nation is already renowned worldwide for successfully stemming the tides, we can also become a leading nation and testing grounds for effective and efficient information technology that serves human beings and our society.’

Challenges require responses
According to the universities, a global need is emerging for responses to challenges surrounding the advent of new technology. Digitisation is drastically altering all aspects of society – from education to healthcare, transport to housing, agriculture to industry, infrastructure to the democratic rule of law, and from service provision to media and entertainment – developments that until recently would have seemed like science fiction are now at our doorstep. These new technologies offer wonderful opportunities, but also bring new dilemmas and drawbacks. Success will depend on finding the best way to combine technology and society.

Key role for universities
The plan is a logical extension of the National Science Agenda, a product of social dialogue that took place last year. Many questions from this agenda that may seem unrelated can be seen as part of one central question: how should we approach the opportunities offered by digitisation? It is a question that has proven relevant to all academic disciplines. Dittrich: ‘Moreso than in other countries, our researchers are also successful at transcending the boundaries between scientific disciplines and institutions – qualities that are essential in such a broad field of research.’

Universities get to work
The universities wish to enter into dialogue with civil-social organisations, industry and the government in order to further flesh out the initiative. The objective ties in with ‘NL Next Level’, a call issued by the Confederation of Netherlands Industry and Employers (VNO-NCW) for substantial investments in digitisation. It is clear that universities will start to cluster and coordinate much existing research. Targeted and substantial incentives for research programmes will be necessary, involving collaboration between a variety of relevant disciplines. The recruitment and training of new talent in the digital sciences will be crucial, as will the expansion and enhancement of the required technological and laboratory infrastructure.

Research investments required
In addition to efforts by universities, is clear that other parties must also be prepared to make substantial additional investments to further research in the Netherlands.

Dittrich: ‘Investing now in research on what may be the most important transition of our age will enable the Netherlands to secure a prominent position on the digital world map for the decade to come.’

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