"How do we ensure that in ever-larger consortia, just slightly dissenting researchers can also make their indispensable contribution?"
Click here to read the interview in Dutch.
This month, Professor Hester den Ruijter, known for her research on cardiovascular disease in women, starts as the new research policy pillar chair. Who is she, what are her first impressions and what is she up to? "One billion in ten years and substantial reduction of disease burden: a tall order. I like that!"
Cardiovascular disease was definitely not the girl's dream for Hester den Ruijter, professor of cardiovascular disease in women at UMCU and, together with Eric Boerstra, research leader of DCVA consortium IMPRESS. She wanted to become a veterinarian and do something with stray dogs.
She studied nutritional toxicology in Wageningen and became interested in cardiovascular diseases through her PhD research on nutrition and arrhythmias. A "real lab rat", her own words, she went back to the lecture benches to get a master's in epidemiology so she could better consult with clinical researchers. At the same time, she was researching a cure for arterial calcification, especially of a variant common in women. A summary of this very varied career so far? "I am a huge generalist. I like almost everything." In her spare time, she goes running and puts as much energy as possible into her family with Michiel and children Joen and Linde. "And Romanian stray dog Felix. So with that girlhood dream, things have worked out well too."
What are your first impressions?
"It's still a bit early for that. So far, I am only active as research leader of a DCVA consortium and therefore a relative newcomer, although I know a number of DCVA activists like Folkert Asselbergs and Leon de Windt well. I'm still settling in and looking around and I am not at all into immediately shouting that everything should be different."
As a researcher, what do you have to do with research policy?
"I have always been curious about how we organise, fund and assess research. The policy choices we make have a big impact on what is researched, by whom and how. I was at the Young Academy of KNAW as vice-president of research policy and at UMC Utrecht as chair of the committee on alternative career paths, where we were working on recognition and appreciation. Quite a bit of experience with research policy, therefore, but not yet at the DCVA."
What are your current views on research policy?
"I have a warm heart for the ideas prevalent among many young researchers to value research differently, with a better balance between more classical approach from the number of publications and bringing forward applied research that receives less obvious attention but is important, such as nursing research. At the same time, in doing so, we should certainly not lose the classic curiosity-driven research. We are now very much relying on knowledge from past decades. It is good that we are working on valorisation and implementation, but we should also keep working on the progress of science in new fields."
What about your own research, as research leader of the IMPRESS consortium?
"My research is, probably unsurprisingly, right in between the fundamental and the applied. We try to discover as much new knowledge as possible about relevant differences between men and women in cardiovascular disease, while also getting that knowledge widely disseminated and applied. For example, we are preparing a patent for a biomarker for arterial calcification. I think it is very important to see the value and interdependence of all these sides of research."
What does your vision mean for the DCVA's research policy?
"I would of course like to discuss that with the DCVA partners first, but given the DCVA's broad mission to achieve a robust reduction in the burden of disease from cardiovascular disease, I believe that we encourage the whole chain from fundamental research to application in practice. The DCVA is about collaboration, that's the added value. I sometimes worry about group size. Consortia, I have just been a quartermaster myself, are getting bigger and bigger. There is a danger of creating more and more mass opinion, whereas you also need cross-thinkers. All chasing the same idea, no matter how good, I don't find that exciting. So how do we ensure that, within these large groups, we also keep small groups that dare to go rigorously in a different direction or angle? Large teams are important in developing innovations, but at the base are those smaller teams that can think more disruptively in that sense."
And as for acknowledging and appreciating?
"It could be a bit more friendlier. It's almost a luxury problem: we have so many good scientists. I see this, for example, when I help assess applications for personal fellowships at the Heart Foundation. We usually reject, not because the proposal is not good, but because the budget is limited and we have to choose. We almost always immediately agree on the best 10%, but there is a large 'middle ground' that is almost as good. You then talk about the difference of tenths so, for example, between a 5 and a 4.9 in the rating. Is that difference still significant when you are talking about which proposal is better? For that group, I would rather draw lots. That you don't have to say that someone is just not good enough, but that someone has unfortunately been rejected. A rejection like that does so much to your career and your motivation. While we actually want to say: no money from us for now, but keep up the good work!"
"I have spent the last decade building hard on my own line of research, I have a large and diverse network and have always been creative on how to use it. Not just funding from funds and the government, but also working with a large multinational to do in-store campaigns to measure blood pressure. I have walked around for a health insurer in a big, furry blue stuffed heart to raise money for a clinical trial. For me, nothing is too crazy. Or, let me put it this way: I enjoy getting things done off the beaten track."