The year 2014 saw the unfolding of the Dutch government's new Top Sectors policy. Over the past year, the contours of this policy and its implications have become clearer. The new policy has put an end to the specific funding schemes supporting individual institutions such as the Leading Technology Institutes (LTIs) - of which DPI is one - regardless of their past performance. A more generic policy has been introduced instead, with a different organisational set-up and a different incentives structure.
It is to be seen whether the strong knowledge infrastructure that the LTIs have helped to build will continue to thrive under this new policy. This at any rate holds for the polymer sector in the Netherlands, which over the past decade has benefited from the successful collaboration between industry and academia via the pivotal DPI platform. The bulk of polymer research in the Netherlands has been carried out under the auspices of DPI.
We are proud of DPI's successful track record. And we believe that DPI's bridging role deserves to be continued, notwithstanding the changes in the Dutch government's funding policy. This means that a new funding format needs to be put in place in which DPI is no longer structurally dependent on government funding. To this end, in 2014 we systematically sounded out our industrial partners and came up with a value proposition for a new format - DPI 2.0 - which was formally presented to all our industrial partners in January 2015.
The DPI 2.0 value proposition is to establish a pre-competitive international research programme in polymer science and technology with a focused portfolio and supported by commitment and funding from industrial partners. Any additional funding that can be obtained from national, regional or international organisations will be utilised to generate upward potential to enhance our overall offering to our partners.
We are pleased to report that so far 9 major companies have confirmed their participation in DPI 2.0. The commitment of these companies gives us confidence that DPI 2.0 is a sound proposition. In deciding to participate in DPI 2.0, these partners have no doubt weighed the pros and cons of participation in a collaborative platform versus bilateral collaboration between a company and a university. Their endorsement also shows that for these companies the added value of the DPI platform carries greater weight than the level of the financial contribution required.
Until now, the DPI industrial partner base has primarily consisted of producers and processors of polymeric materials. Now, we will also approach companies in other segments of the polymer value chain, such as the industrial end-users, who also stand to gain from a collaborative pre-competitive research programme addressing fundamental topics related to end-use applications of polymeric materials. Their participation will also enable DPI to develop attractive value propositions to seize the opportunities offered by public programmes such as the EU's Horizon 2020.
Why the DPI platform matters
Both the polymer industry and the universities have benefited from the research programmes of the DPI collaborative platform. Over the past ten years, DPI has built a strong international network of toplevel scientists and academic groups specialised in polymer chemistry, polymer physics and polymer processing. The DPI organisation has become highly competent in setting up and managing coherent research programmes that identify and utilise the best possible academic expertise to address the needs of its industrial partners and to ensure a steady supply of competently trained polymer experts. These research programmes have been instrumental in enhancing the academic effort in polymer research in both qualitative and quantitative terms.
We believe that the continuation of the DPI platform will help to prevent the erosion of the polymer knowledge base that seems imminent in some areas, especially in the current climate of reduced R&D spending in Europe coupled with the changes in the incentive schemes. An increasing shift towards more narrowly based bilateral collaborations between companies and universities, without the balancing effect of broadly based collaborative platforms, could lead to a decline in academic activity in a number of areas that are of importance to the polymer industry in the long term.
DPI’s international network has always been one of its strong points. It offers a wider platform for comprehensive and in-depth research on internationally relevant topics in polymer science. Also, it enables DPI to obtain the right polymer expertise in the face of fluctuations in academic priorities in time and from region to region.
With the use of polymeric materials set to grow tenfold in the next few years – especially in countries, such as those in Asia, that are currently marginal users – polymer research on an international level is becoming more essential than ever. Enhancing our understanding of the fundamental aspects of such materials will enable us to optimise the functionalities of established polymeric materials, explore the potential of new polymeric materials and find lifecycle based solutions to the growing environmental and sustainability concerns in the world.
In order to participate in and contribute to developments in polymer science on an international level, we will have to further strengthen the DPI network by attracting more and stronger international partners, both industrial and academic. A more international approach will also be to the benefit of Dutch companies, no matter where in the world their activities are based. In this regard, we are pleased that we have a number of international companies on board for DPI 2.0, representing research interests in important areas of polymeric materials application.
For many years now, DPI has been delivering a high volume of scientific output of a consistently high quality, widely recognised and appreciated by the international scientific community. This has among other things been reflected in a high Journal Impact Factor (2014: 4.45). In 2014, this excellence in research was independently confirmed in a study carried out by Elsevier on behalf of the Netherlands Enterprise Agency, an operational unit of the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs. It is part of a wider programme to benchmark academic achievements in research programmes being executed under the auspices of Top Consortia for Knowledge and Innovation (TKIs) in the Netherlands.
In addition to publication output, citation impact and patent citations, the study – which focused on publications in the field of Smart Polymeric Materials – also examined two aspects that form the cornerstones of the DPI research platform: international collaboration and collaboration between academia and industry.
The Netherlands ranks second globally for co-authored articles resulting from international collaboration. And in terms of publications representing academic corporate collaboration the Netherlands is in fact the world leader. The FWCI score for the Netherlands for both these categories of publications was also very high – the fourth highest in the world.
Earlier economic studies have acclaimed DPI’s strength in bringing together industrial and academic partners in a competently managed pre-competitive research programme. We are proud that this Elsevier report clearly shows that DPI research also stands out scientifically. It confirms our conviction that scientific and industrial relevance are not mutually exclusive.
It goes without saying that in the current transition phase too – characterised by strained circumstances – DPI is managing the research programme in keeping with our normal practice, under a strict regime of responsible and controlled use of financial resources in the best interests of our industrial partners. We have had to be cautious in entering into any new project or programme commitments. As a consequence, in 2014 we had a total of only around 110 FTE in research positions in our running programme. This figure will decline further as the running projects are phased out in the next two years. For 2015, we have granted only a very small number of new projects. A transition scenario has been defined to ensure that the transition from the current programme to the proposed DPI 2.0 programme takes place in an efficient and transparent manner.
The moment of truth
For DPI as well as for the polymer sector, especially in the Netherlands, the year 2015 is the moment of truth. What course will polymer research take? The go/no-go decision on DPI 2.0 will be made towards the end of the year. Either way, the decision will impact the future course of polymer research. We sincerely hope that our existing industrial partners and potential new partners will endorse and embrace the DPI 2.0 value proposition and join us in continuing to build and maintain a strong, industrially relevant polymer knowledge base through a competently managed international pre-competitive research programme.
Jacques Joosten – Managing Director
Sybrand van der Zwaag – Scientific Director
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