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VUB opens academic year with new rector Jan Danckaert pleading for 'science as a public good'
Under the banner ‘science as a public good’, new rector Jan Danckaert underlined the importance of science in a world in transition and crisis when opening the academic year at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB).
“The world needs you. It’s not just VUB’s slogan, it’s a cry for help,” Danckaert told the audience at the annual ceremony in the listed Abattoir market hall in Anderlecht. “Research that enables industry and business can also perfectly serve the public good. And vice versa.”
Brussels’ Dutch-speaking university also paid tribute to “much-missed” honorary rectors Caroline Pauwels and Paul De Knop after their death in early August.
How the pandemic is changing the role of scientists
The spotlight on science during the coronavirus pandemic was one motivation for the theme of Danckaert’s opening speech. “Never in the history of vaccination, has a vaccine been developed and dispensed so fast because of new developments in science as well as the development of open science.”
In response to the waves of criticism provoked by the pandemic, he told The Bulletin: “People were questioning the measures when there was not always full consistency… but they were also questioning the science.”
To help counteract misinformation, he called for science to be better communicated to all levels of the population. “Science is being questioned and conspiracy thinking is on the rise. We have to take responsibility.”
While the pandemic was “an extraordinary example” of science adapting to changing circumstances and acting fast, Danckaert believes Covid was not an isolated incidence of science serving the public good. “We will need it again because we are living in a volatile and complex world. Not only are there pandemics, but wars, climate and energy crises and political instability.”
If public-private partnerships were key to developing vaccines, the role of public investment and the common good should not be ignored, he said. “Industrial labs were needed because they knew how to test and produce large quantities of the vaccines, but some of the battles now taking place for the IP rights of the vaccines when major parts of the global population have not been fully vaccinated, are ethically worrying.”
Danckaert pointed out the “striking” contradiction of a world that was becoming geopolitically more segregated, with “different blocks building, if not physical walls, political ones, while science became more international as more data was shared”.
The physicist had an additional ‘internal’ message about the need to trust scientists to focus on longer-term research and science that would advance the common good rather than being evaluated on the number of publications they produced.
On this note, he pointed out the importance of scale: “We have to join forces. We are doing a lot today, but unfortunately, too often it’s too much with too little, with two few people and resources. Everything we do should always be in proportion to what we can effectively handle.”
Alliances with other universities
VUB’s new rector reiterated his commitment to continuing the work of his predecessors in forging collaborations with other academic institutions, while remaining an urban-engaged university.
Among its increasing number of English-language studies, the university shares five English-run engineering masters courses with ULB. It’s also redeveloping with its francophone counterpart the project Usquare.brussels at the former army barracks in Ixelles. “We are creating a new learning and innovation centre; we can do big infrastructure projects because of our strong partnership,” said Danckaert.
On an international level, VUB is involved in the European university alliance Eutopia. “We create learning communities among the 10 universities involved; students stay on their campus while still having a European leaning experience by contact with students and teacher in other universities and external stakeholders. It’s very inspiring.”
Meanwhile, VUB remains rooted in Brussels’ complex and multicultural environment, said Danckaert. “This environment inspires us in our education and research, but also in our impact on society.”
Tributes to Pauwels and De Knop
Chair of the VUB board Karsten De Clerck recalled the three words that he associated with Pauwels: love, dreams and inspiration. He also cited the power of possibilism as an important part of her legacy. “The deep realisation that we can make the world a better place, and we start with our university, because it comes down to us.”
Pauwels’ predecessor Paul De Knop also had an inner strength that was reflected in his life motto “optimism is a moral duty”, said De Clerck, who credited the honorary rector with saving VUB’s independence by building bridges with ULB and the Brussels University Alliance when he started his mandate as rector in 2008.
Photos: (c) VUB