Retiring dean Buydens of the science faculty hopes the number of women at the faculty will increase

12 Nov 2021

After close to five years, Lutgarde Buydens is retiring as dean of the science faculty at the end of this month. She is happy with the progress made when it comes to the diversity and social impact of research, but it could always be more. ‘People have started to realize there is a lot of female talent.’

Wherever Lutgarde Buydens is, Pasteur type research follows soon after. Everyone at the faculty of science knows of the dean’s hobbyhorse by now. ‘At least, that is what I hope’, says the professor Analytical Chemistry with a smile.

What Buydens means by Pasteur type research, is research that is fundamental in its nature, but ultimately hopes to solve problems in society. Just like Louis Pasteur did when he discovered bacteria caused diseases: the French scientist developed a way to defuse the pathogens, via heating.

Students of the science faculty in Nijmegen missed out on a lot of societal opportunities, Buydens observed when she became dean five years ago. The faculty of science should be the one to fill the gap. As a scientist, that is part of your responsibility, she finds.

Since then, Pasteur type research has become part of the faculty’s DNA, thus probably making it the most important part of Buydens’ legacy, who passes the baton to Sijbrand de Jong next month. These last years, the science faculty has started to work more closely with organizations such as IMEC and Jansen Pharmaceuticals. ‘And there are so many more companies.’

Would you say you have succeeded in your goal for more ‘Pasteur type research’?

‘I am proud of where we currently stand since we’ve come from far. And I’m also proud of everything still in the pipeline. For example, soon we’ll starting the alliance Mission 10-x, with the universities of Twente and Eindhoven. 10 – in other words: ten – stands for the first letters of the three cities, but also represents our mission: ten times less energy usage by computers. With research on new materials at HFML/Felix (large research centre on campus, ed.) and computer algorithms we hope we hope to contribute from Nijmegen. It perfectly fits within GreenIT, the platform for interdisciplinary projects on sustainable information technology within our faculty I initiated four years ago.’

Didn’t the faculty of science already have interdisciplinary research institutes, where different areas of expertise worked together?

‘That’s true, but those have been around for so long they have become small fortresses. I’ve tried to break down those walls with vouchers for collaborative projects. Every year we hand out three, each around 30.000 euros. It’s seed money, just enough to set such a collaboration in motion, for example via a promotion project.’

Another spearhead was the stimulation of female talent. That seems to have failed, the number of female professors at the faculty of science is still low.

‘That remains a challenge, yes. But don’t forget we started out even lower. Besides, it will take a while for all the old men to ‘go extinct’. There are things that have changed these past years, especially when it comes to awareness. For example, via the Mohrman program, we managed to get many women on their tenure-track. And currently we are recruiting three female professors. That made people realize there actually is a lot of female talent; back in the days people were quick to say there weren’t many good women to be found. Currently, 40 percent of the tenure-trackers are female. That is good, but still not enough.’

‘And the national sector plan funds (that should give scientific research a boost, ed.) requires an equal number of men and women to be appointed. We want to extend that to all appointments within the faculty, regardless of how they’re financed. That does mean we need to be more lenient with job profiles. Sometimes, those need to be described more broadly than before. The narrower they are, the harder it is to find women. That does require us to adapt. The fact we’re even talking about it at the moment already makes me proud.’

How does one get this into practice?

‘First of all, everyone in the appointment advisory committee, for professors and other positions, need to have followed a diversity training. Otherwise, you simple can not get in. Those trainings are organized monthly, and we take those very seriously.’

‘But challenges in the nomination process still remain, especially at the start and near the end. The bottleneck at the start entails you need to fit in enough female candidates. At the end when only two candidates remain, you need to prevent being too quick to choose a man.’

Isn’t that question of saying ‘when both are an equal fit, preference goes out to a woman’?

‘That is what I would like to do. But it’s easier said than done. People tend to pick someone they trust, and subconsciously they’ll be quicker to choose a man. That has nothing to do with sexism, but it’s because trust is often based on how often they have met the person before, for example at a conference. In practice, men tend to outnumber women there, so they’re automatically in favour.’

What are you less satisfied with, looking back at your deanery?

‘I had hoped for there already being more interdisciplinary collaboration. Within the faculty, but also with other groups on campus. That is starting now, as I said before, but we could do so much more. It’s unique to Nijmegen how close the science faculty is to the other faculties. Based on that, we could have made a national difference a long time ago.’

‘I thought: “I’ve got a beautiful faculty”’

And on the subject of education? The study biology got a numerus fixus (a limit to how many students are allowed to attend a study, ed.), is that not a weakness?

‘There was not much else to do. We simply had too little room for all the practicums. You can’t simply add some extra rooms. That’s why the growing number of students in computer science is less of a problem. Eventually there needs to be a solution for biology. It’s important those solutions are implemented nationwide. We should avoid every university implementing their own policy when the number of students grows too big.’

How have you experienced the corona period?

‘Corona was a tough time, especially at the start. But what I found great to see was the way everyone gave all they had to assure education could continue – it gave a feeling of community. “I’ve got a beautiful faculty”, is what I thought at that moment. People tend to think research is our priority here, but this showed how important we find our education. What worries me, is whether people are going to experience a kickback. They have given 300 percent, that needs to end soon.’

What are you going to do after your deanery?

‘As professor, I’m going to continue working until at least June 2022. After that I’m going to retire. I’ll be using the coming months to organize an international conference in Nijmegen, for analytical chemists. The conference will focus on how our area of expertise can contribute to the solution of environmental issues. Weatherman and climate researcher Pieter Kuipers Munneke will be the one to open the conference.’

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