June 3, 2002
Volume 80, Number 22
CENEAR 80 22 pp. 32-35
ISSN 0009-2347


Tradition, team effort, and determination make catalysis R&D in the Netherlands world-class


GETTING AROUND Dense population and a rail system that makes traveling between catalysis R&D centers convenient from nearly anywhere in the country--including Amsterdam's Central Train Station, shown here--are factors in the Netherlands' success in catalysis.
ow does a country of just 16 million people maintain a leadership role in a research area of global technological and economic importance? How does a small country come to play a key part in a scientific discipline that keeps the wheels of the chemical industry turning?

By many measures--numbers of universities, high-tech companies, Ph.D. students, research publications, and other parameters--catalysis R&D in the Netherlands is world-class. The academic and industrial research organizations and the scientists who work there enjoy broad recognition throughout the world of catalysis. But how did it get that way?

Scientists in academia and industry, university executives, and government officials involved in funding catalysis research offer varied answers. But by and large, a fairly unified collection of themes emerges.

"It's because of company density," says Herman van Bekkum. The Delft University emeritus chemistry professor points to the large number of companies that have long been active on the Dutch catalysis scene. "Shell, DSM, Akzo, Philips, and others attract talented young people." The companies have helped maintain a high concentration of catalysis expertise in the Netherlands over the years.

Rutger A. van Santen offers an alternative explanation. "If you look to the interface of industry and university, you'll see that we've had a unique situation since the 1950s, in which a number of people who were employed by DSM, Philips, or Shell also held faculty positions at universities."

Van Santen, who is a professor of chemistry and chemical engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology and was recently appointed university rector, adds that, decades ago, "the relationship between industrial and academic research was a very close one--yet no money was involved. It was only people." At that time, industry didn't sponsor research, he says, "but the contacts were very intense." For example, van Santen notes that the professor with whom he earned his Ph.D. degree spent two days per week at Shell and the rest of the week at the University of Leiden. There are plenty of similar examples, he says.

And it hasn't only been scientists playing such dual roles who've strengthened the ties between universities and industry. "It is quite common here for people to move from industry into universities full time," van Santen remarks. Certainly, a professor who begins an academic career after 20 years in industry comes to the new position with a long list of close connections.

Van Santen
"THE TRADITION of collaborating and sharing people is very typical here and has been important in Dutch scientific research for a long time," says Piet W. N. M. van Leeuwen, a professor and group leader at the University of Amsterdam's Institute of Molecular Chemistry.

"It's really a matter of trust on industry's side," van Leeuwen adds. That insight comes from someone who spent 26 years conducting research at Shell. Typically, companies everywhere insist that their researchers remain tight-lipped and refrain from discussing confidential research issues with university scientists. "Dutch companies accept that there may be some leakage of knowledge," van Leeuwen says, "but they feel that it's to their advantage."

Where does the trust come from? "People know each other here," van Santen answers. "When you live together for 20 or 30 years in a small society, you trust each other and feel comfortable exchanging information."

When it comes to looking at the Dutch scientific community, Dieter Vogt has a bit of an outsider's view. Unlike most of his Eindhoven colleagues, Vogt, a professor of inorganic chemistry, was born and raised in Germany, not Holland.

"It's my impression that people really do know each other here," Vogt says. "The Netherlands is small, and everything is very dense. Knowing one another creates trust, and that's important."

"DUTCH INDUSTRY is very open in terms of cooperation and idea exchange, in contrast to classic German companies," Vogt observes.

Move the discussion from Eindhoven's faculty club to Delft University of Technology, and some of the same answers and explanations concerning Holland's position in the world catalysis scene come up all over again. A few new ones emerge, too.

Jacob A. Moulijn, a chemical engineering professor and head of Delft's reactor and catalysis engineering group, says that the present strength of the Netherlands in catalysis R&D starts with a history of strong groups in chemistry, physics, and engineering. From there, it's a matter of capitalizing on those strengths by assembling teams that possess varied expertise in a host of subjects that play an important part in catalysis. Such teams are the hallmark of catalysis R&D in the Netherlands today.

A well-developed network is another key factor in the way Dutch research is carried out. Freek Kapteijn, a close associate of Moulijn's and a professor in the reactor engineering group, reiterates the explanations based on company density and close ties between industry and academia. "Add to that the high density of the population and the large number of universities in the Netherlands," Kapteijn says, and a picture forms of a tight geographical region with a high concentration of advanced technical centers.

Consider Dutch universities, for example: The country's excellent rail service makes it possible to travel a couple of hours--at most--from nearly anywhere in the Netherlands to any of the universities.

Forming alliances and building teams take place on several levels: within a professor's research group, between academics in a single department or faculty, and between academics in separate departments. At the next level up, certain Dutch organizations bring together universities with common interests (not just catalysis) into national groups that can benefit from pooled talents (see page 42). And industry involvement ensures that research topics are industrially relevant.

At Delft's reactor engineering center, Moulijn's approach to forming a strong research group is based on achieving what he terms "critical mass," meaning a large pool of researchers with various specialties. Presently, his group boasts nearly 70 members with backgrounds in chemical engineering, chemistry, physics, mechanical engineering, and other areas.

"Catalysis is multidisciplinary," Moulijn asserts. And succeeding in the field requires approaching problems from many sides. He notes that in some countries, catalysis research is strictly physical chemistry or mainly surface science. Certainly those pieces are important, Moulijn acknowledges, but there's more to it than that. "We study catalysts and catalytic processes in an integrated way."

For example, in the catalysis and reactor engineering group, some researchers focus on in situ probes such as infrared and Raman spectroscopy, while others carry out computational fluid dynamics calculations. Still others study reactor design or catalyst design. "You could never do that in a group with just one professor and three or four students," Moulijn comments. Similarly, the group's size makes it fairly easy to keep up with new developments because a couple of members can be assigned the task of looking into new instrumentation and methodology.

Moulijn and Kapteijn agree that researchers derive benefits from working in a setting where people who focus on a particular topic in catalysis can chat over a cup of coffee with scientists who work on somewhat unrelated projects. In a large research group, it's easy to strike up those kinds of conversations.

In the U.S. and elsewhere, chemistry and chemical engineering departments are often isolated from each other. In contrast, maintaining close ties between chemistry and chemical engineering groups in Holland is generally the rule, according to Moulijn. In fact, in some large universities--Eindhoven, for example--chemistry and chemical engineering professors serve in a single department.

TEAMWORK Kapteijn (left) and Moulijn believe that the strength of the Netherlands in catalysis R&D starts with strong research groups.
ONE OUTCOME of interdepartmental connections is that Ph.D. students typically have research directors from more than one department. That arrangement can be credited with broadening students' educational experiences. University funding practices and curriculum requirements make such collaborations straightforward to establish.

Close working arrangements between Dutch universities is another factor supporting top-notch catalysis research in the Netherlands. Organizations like the Dutch Institute for Catalysis Research, whose Dutch acronym is NIOK (Nederlands Instituut voor Onderzoek in de Katalyse), bring together universities with expertise in all areas of catalysis and allied disciplines into so-called national research schools.

More of a program or a virtual institute than a school, NIOK aims to improve catalysis education at the national level and to stimulate research collaborations between scientists in separate disciplines and separate universities (see page 38). As a result, it is common for Ph.D. students at Dutch universities to work for research advisers in more than one department and even in separate universities. That's quite different from having an "outside" professor participate in a Ph.D. defense, as is done in some universities.

Willem Kardux, a member of Utrecht University's governing board, says that forming institutes that stimulate joint research ventures between scientists in two or more faculties is a priority at Utrecht and has been for quite some time.

"Historically, universities in continental Europe were organized by faculties," Kardux says. Faculties were unable to build successful interdisciplinary programs because a high level of cooperation among independent academic units is needed to ensure their success. But once the benefits of forming such alliances were demonstrated--benefits to education, the quality of research, and the ability to secure research funds, for example--the practice gathered momentum, Kardux notes. Eventually, the team-building concept was championed by a minister of education and research who developed and expanded the practice on a nationwide scale into the so-called research schools.

"NIOK is a good example of an institute with strong cooperation among several universities," Kardux remarks. There are other institutions with similar objectives in various disciplines throughout the Netherlands.

According to Gerard van Koten, the concerted effort to pool skill and talent into organized groups "has kept catalysis on the national scene." Van Koten, who heads Utrecht's department of metal-mediated synthesis and is NIOK's scientific director, adds that "catalysis wouldn't be such a major focal point without it."

Van Koten goes on to say that the Netherlands' small size makes it possible for research groups to work together successfully in virtual institutes like NIOK. Sometimes industry or government representatives are uncomfortable with these arrangements, he says, because they're not quite like government institutes or corporate research labs. Just the same, academic scientists have come to recognize the importance of cooperating with each other, and they do so within these virtual institutes.

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Kardux Van Koten
"ALL CATALYSIS groups in Holland are in a way connected to one another," says Delft's Moulijn, who is chairman of the NIOK board. "Integration is a good thing. It's important in the way we organize ourselves. You could say that collaborating is part of our culture."

"Don't underestimate the importance of personality," Kapteijn interjects. He explains that it takes a certain mind-set to be willing to work things out in group settings so regularly. In countries where top-level academics are accustomed to calling all the shots and working independently, teaming up on nearly everything may not be appealing. "It's true," Moulijn agrees, laughing. "We have a reputation of cooperating with each other. People say we're kind of boring--we don't have enough fights."

Hans Bouma, NIOK's deputy director and secretary, says that the let's-do-it-together attitude "is kind of a national tradition. And it's not limited to professors or science." Bouma and Moulijn underscore the point by noting that, to the best of their memories, NIOK has never held a referendum on anything. On first thought, making group decisions without casting votes hardly seems democratic, fair, or in any way representative of a spirit of cooperation. But it's not that a single authoritative figure makes all decisions for the group. Rather, the Dutch way, according to Bouma, is to discuss issues from all sides until a unanimous decision is reached.

Where does such a willingness to work together--to compromise--come from?

One possibility is summed up in the Dutch term "het poldermodel," the polder model. The term signifies a model of cooperation in Dutch society that grew out of necessity from life in the polder. Polders are below-sea-level areas that are drained, dammed off, and continuously pumped, originally by windmills, to keep the land dry. More than one-third of the country is situated below sea level and protected from water by an extensive systems of dikes.

After land was reclaimed from the sea, and farms and towns were built in the new areas, residents needed to be vigilant about protecting their property from flooding, Moulijn explains. "People living there had to be organized and cooperate to make sure that the dike was okay and that everything was safe. The first priority has always been survival. And that takes teamwork."

To be sure, success in catalysis research or any field requires more than having team spirit in your bones. In fact, a certain level of competition among scientists ensures that researchers strive to excel in their disciplines. Still, the funding structure in Dutch universities stimulates cooperation--it's designed that way, Moulijn notes. "But we come to it rather naturally."

Van Koten agrees. "I don't think you'll find our model of negotiating and cooperating with each other in too many other places," he says. "In a small country like the Netherlands, it's important to compete--to guarantee quality--but it's also important to cooperate--to get the job done."


Strength In Numbers For Dutch Catalysis

You can't call it a large country. A few hours on an express train is all it takes to travel the land from north to south. Yet despite its relatively small size, the Netherlands, with a population of just 16 million, boasts some pretty impressive statistics in the world of catalysis.

For example, an estimated 90 million euros (about $83 million) is spent by industry and academia in the Netherlands each year on catalysis R&D. And a disproportionately large number of universities and companies have long played a part in catalysis research and have helped attract talent and maintain a high concentration of technical expertise. Research centers include the following:

  • Utrecht University, Eindhoven University of Technology, Delft University of Technology, University of Amsterdam, Twente University, Leiden University, University of Groningen, and Nijmegen Catholic University.
  • Shell, DSM, Akzo Nobel, Philips, Unilever, and Avantium Technologies.
  • International companies include Dow, DuPont, Engelhard, and ExxonMobil.

Drawing on data from a soon-to-be-published study, F. Theodore Hesselink, director of the chemical sciences division at the Netherlands Research Council (abbreviated NWO in Dutch), notes that the past decade was a particularly productive period for academic catalysis research in the Netherlands. Among the study's high points are statistics such as these:

  • From 1991 to 2000, catalysis research groups in the Netherlands published roughly 4,460 research papers.
  • During that period, the publications were cited 62,188 times in the scientific literature.
  • The citation frequency corresponds to an average value of 13.9 citations per publication (CpP)--nearly double the world average in catalysis of 6.9 CpP.
  • All major research groups scored at least 50% higher than the world-average CpP value. For comparison, Dutch catalysis groups scored 40% higher than the world-average CpP value for the period 1986–91.

Scientists in academia and industry have worked with university executives and government officials to develop and implement several national research programs. One of the aims of the programs is to promote collaboration among researchers with expertise across all areas of catalysis and related fields including homogeneous and heterogeneous catalysis, biocatalysis, materials synthesis and characterization, and other disciplines.

"I am sure that further structuring of Dutch catalysis research in national programs has significantly contributed to the major increase in the impact of Dutch catalysis research," Hesselink remarks. "Induced by top-down incentives, this structuring has been a strongly bottom-up process in self-organization."

According to NWO, spending on scientific and technical research extends significantly beyond catalysis. For example, Dutch companies, universities, and government agencies invested a total of 7.5 billion euros (1.9% of the gross domestic product) on scientific research in 2000. Industry research related to product development accounts for 54%. And NWO spent nearly 400 million euros on scientific research in 2001; 13 Dutch universities received a total of two-thirds of the funds.

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ATTRACTING TALENT Catalysis research in Dutch universities, shown here, for example, at Delft (left) and Utrecht, is well supported by government programs.


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