Is the government destroying our knowledge economy?

Jasper Schmeits

The Netherlands is considered to be a knowledge economy, with society’s economic growth stemming from knowledge and innovation rather than from labour or agriculture. We should be pioneering in the field of new developments and new discoveries, but are we? And is our government facilitating this sufficiently? 

The Netherlands is lagging behind 

Data from the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) show that we are lagging behind other countries in terms of investments, excelling neither in Europe nor globally. Our gross domestic expenditure on Research & Development is only average (approx. 2% in 2015) for Europe. Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland are leading in Europe. Even our southern and eastern neighbours rank higher than us. Israel and Korea, where it is mainly driven by military developments, are global leaders. The question is whether this is a problem. You do not necessarily have to invest the most to be a knowledge economy, but you do need to try to be the smartest individual in the class. 

New techniques insufficiently safeguarded in legislation

To get innovations off the ground, you need pilot tests. You have to find out what is possible with any given technique. Our industrial clients are often open to exploring such developments with us in order to make processes smarter, to increase processing times, or to make processing easier. Financial benefits are also a good incentive for making changes. Full-scale application of these kinds of techniques is often met with obstacles - in the form of legal requirements - as a result of which much effort is put into providing the research data required by the relevant competent authorities. 

An example:

An example of this is the use of the XRF in soil investigation and remediation. This handy analyser provides on-site insight into the level of heavy metal contamination. Despite having more than ten years of experience with these kinds of measurement data, the relevant authorities insist time and again on receiving the conventional laboratory results. Legislation so far has not been amended adequately. Various parties, including the SIKB, have repeatedly drafted guidelines to this end. For example, the “Guideline for large-scale research”, which focuses on the use of the XRF, is due in mid-February 2018. However, policy officers have their hands tied when assessing such innovative research against the legislative acts. These legislative acts do not sufficiently stipulate how such new techniques are safeguarded, as a result of which policy officers have no choice but to rely on conventional techniques. Understandable! 

There is a better way

I recently attended a lunchtime talk about the Scottish whisky industry. This is a huge business which involves a large part of the country. This industry has a huge impact on the use of water, fossil fuels, and other material streams, and causes considerable industrial pollution. The SEPA (Scottish Environment Protection Agency) has taken significant steps to reduce the industrial pollution in recent decades. However, they have concluded that to take this further a change of approach is required. A new Act was therefore adopted in 2014: The Regulatory Reform Act. Based on this Act, SEPA has a single, clear assignment:

To protect and improve the environment – to the extent possible – for the benefit of health and wellbeing (social success) and sustainable economic growth (economic success). 

Reversed roles 

This Act allows SEPA to give companies more room for their innovative developments and to provide support in order to be “Beyond Compliance”. The SEPA reverses roles for companies that want to develop further and be best in class: instead of the company having to comply with the requirements of the relevant authorities, relevant authorities enter into consultations with the companies to support them in their developments. What do the companies need to meet the high standards of sustainability objectives? They then arrange this for those companies, thereby providing the necessary room for opportunities and innovative solutions. 

Follow suit?

This story sounds like music to my ears! I am convinced that we can achieve comparable and, in some cases, better results than the in laboratory (if applied properly, of course) with the XRF. The added value to the client is the speed of generating results and being able to respond to the results immediately. I would rather work on further developing these and other innovative techniques than spend time and energy repeatedly convincing the various policy officers. 

And yet we have been faced with legislation blocking this for more than ten years. A similar Act would bring us further and offer policy officers the tools they need to work with. I would like to discuss this possibility in the Dutch House of Representatives! 

Who can introduce me there?

How can I help you?

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