Rutger van Santen is full professor in Catalysis. He received his Ph.D. from Leiden University in 1971 with prof. L.J. Oosterhoff as supervisor. Nowadays, he is director of the Schuit Institute of Catalysis and scientific director of the National Research School Combination Catalysis Controlled by Chemical Design (NRSC-C).
He participated in the NGCS9 as speaker.
NGCS9 Monday 29th May
Interviewed by Sandrine Lebigre & Aurélie Abad – ALMA
(Questions and Proofreading: Ana Valcarcel –ALMA)
ALMA CG: You have studied in the US and in Europe. To your opinion, how do science and attitudes to science differ between USA and EU?
Even if American researchers themselves are much more individuals than European ones, the United States has organized a significant part of University research output through mission-oriented programs. Indeed, large American Government Agencies define integrated oriented programs through the coordination of complementary expertises in a wide spectrum of laboratories. Researchers compete for grant support. The Department of Energy is an example of this integrated approach.
In Europe, we would also need much more large scale oriented programs in which diverse laboratories collaborate. The European Institute of Technology is a good start but we would need more focus and mass.
ALMA CG: You are Director of the SKI and scientific director of the NRSC-C. What are your day-to-day challenges?
In the Netherlands, the National Institute of Research in Catalysis has begun as local organizations in several universities. In Eindhoven this was the Schuit Institute of Catalysis. Two years after the creation of the SKI, the Netherlands Institute of Research in Catalysis (NIOK) has been created. The uniqueness of this Institute is the co-existence of complementary sub-disciplines in the development of catalyst systems: homogeneous, heterogeneous, bio-catalysis. Another key point of the success of the NIOK is the strong involvement of relevant industries that pay a fee to the joined foundation of industries that forms an industrial supervisory board to NIOK.
Few years later, the NRSC-C (National Research School Combination “Catalysis”) has been created. This joint research programme aims for high-risk fundamental research on catalyst systems and techniques. In order to be able to perform this long-term oriented research, we could not accept any industrial financial participation in this organization. This view was supported by the Dutch National Science Foundation.
In the laboratories themselves researchers then work at the same time on this very fundamental research as well as on more applied research projects that will have short-time industrial applications, for example through the participation in European Integrated Projects or in bilateral research with industries.
In conclusion, one of the big challenges today is to gather researchers with complementary skills and to build with them complementary research programs: short-medium term programs with industrial involvement and long-term programs only funded by public money and without any industrial involvement in order to keep the required flexibility of long-term research. The 7th Framework European Program is very interesting for funding applied projects involving industries. But, the FP7 does not give you the possibility to do some very fundamental research without any industrial involvement and this is a weakness.
ALMA CG: Your work focuses on the molecular aspect of heterogeneous catalysis. What drew you to this specific aspect of Chemistry?
In the 60s, I did study in University of Leiden and I became trained as a physical organic Chemist and theoretical organic Chemist. Then, joining Shell Research, I had the opportunity to work on heterogeneous catalysis. As I am a curious person, I saw this as an opportunity and discovered this, for me, new field of Chemistry. At that time, research on catalysis was at its very beginning and large companies like Shell had large catalysis departments gathering renowned scientists with interesting references and publications.
Now, things have changed. Large companies like Shell do not do that much fundamental research anymore; they are mainly focused on short-term projects. So, we need to create new organizations to interface companies with Universities. For example, in France, IFP is making the technology transfer that used to be done by large companies’ laboratories. Besides, the transfer of technologies can be done though the creation of spin-off companies. And these spin-off companies can then be an asset for the University to participate to FP7.