Opinion: When are you a scientist?
He saw it as a young researcher: keeping colleagues down, PhD students who were being blackmailed, agreements not being met, scientists almost attacking each other physically during meetings. “I have the most wonderful job in the world, after all I love research and teaching immensely, but I also wanted to become a professor because it enables me to make changes from within the academic system, where necessary,” says professor Daniël van den Hove. He is responding to the discussion: When are you a scientist?
“Is that the way how we as PIs are supposed to encourage the next generation? Simply destroying any possibility for a fruitful discussion by telling a PhD student her work has no impact? Whether one agrees or not on a matter is not a problem, but we should treat one and another with respect.” That is what professor Daniel van den Hove wrote on LinkedIn a few weeks ago, in a reaction to professor Harald Schmidt, who argued that a researcher who wants a 9-to-5 job and only has a few publications to her name, should not call herself a scientist.
Van den Hove (42) is professor of Neuroepigenetics (FHML), co-ordinator of the research master’s of Fundamental Neuroscience, head of the section of Fundamental Neuroscience, supervisor of PhD students, father of three children, whom he had to teach at home lately. “Last weekend, I explained to my students in an e-mail that I understand that they’re having a tough time, I feel your pain, I wrote, but I cannot do magic and my family comes first. It was greatly appreciated. I got an e-mail back this morning: ‘If anything, I have the feeling that you putting your family first, is one of the traits most of us appreciate the most about you. It is nice to see and certainly a good role model for our future careers ;)’.”
The fact that most of the discussion that he and the young researcher Katharine Bassil had with fellow professor Schmidt was removed from LinkedIn by the latter, still irritates him. “His very disrespectful reactions – very different from his news article afterwards in Observant – are no longer there, hers and mine are now just floating there, in isolation, you don’t know what I am responding to and we can’t even get to our own reactions, because we have been blocked by him without a word.”
Anyway, enough about that, he says. “The ball is now rolling, this discussion about standards and values at our university has fortunately brought about more than I had expected. It is great that we talk about it, something that was not really possible in my time, when I wrote my thesis, between 2002-2006.”
Passion and balance
The tremendous pressure on PhD candidates and the difficult balance between work and private life were the subject of discussion in his own research group and during a Zoom meeting with his master’s students the last few weeks. It is all about culture, Van den Hove emphasises. “I agree with Harald Schmidt that you need to have passion for science and that you must set requirements for PhD candidates. But that passion does not exclude a better balance between work and private life. In fact, this same balance is essential in order to maintain that passion. You don’t need to be dealing with your work 24/7. I see colleagues, even those with permanent contracts, who work themselves to death. That was the case even before COVID-19, and that has only become worse now. Let us make our work healthier. It is up to us, the professors, to set a good example. We should not put too much pressure on young researchers and expect them to always work on weekends and at Christmas, for example. Working hard is allowed, and sometimes it has to be done because an experiment requires it, but the overtime should be compensated later on. Also, let’s not constantly send e-mails in the evening and weekend. That may also produce additional stress. We need to be clear on what is normal within the UM.” He is no “angel”, Van den Hove emphasises, He makes mistakes too, “but I do care a lot about my people, they feel that and that is the most important. PhD students are kind of family to me. If I can make ten people a year enthusiastic for this way of carrying out science, then we can achieve a lot. Then our culture will change.”
Not quite right
Van den Hove feels that it is not just up to the senior staff to change things around. He encourages young researchers to report if something is not quite right. “We now have PhD student representatives, there is a confidential advisor for PhD students, and there is something called a PhD track system. This is an online system where PhD students can assess their supervisors on various domains. Very useful. Let us feel fortunate with critical researchers such as Katharine Bassil, we should cherish them instead of belittling them.”
Conclusion: “We are on the right track. Things are moving forward quicker in the Netherlands than in most other countries. The fact that we are now discussing the matter is part of the change. I am an optimist. We know in what direction we want to go. And that perspective makes my work and hopefully that of many scientists after me even greater than it already was.”