Toespraak van de Prins van Oranje voorafgaand aan de prijsuitreking voor wetenschap en kunst te Amsterdam

27 september 2012

De toespraak is uitgesproken in het Engels.

Distinguished laureates,
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

What better way to start than by offering my heartiest congratulations to the winners of this year's Heineken Prizes. Initiated by Dr Freddy Heineken and fostered by his daughter, Charlene De Carvalho, these awards have gained much prestige over the years. They are among the proudest achievements of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. I have the greatest respect and admiration for the auspicious choices the juries have made throughout the years. And of course - most of all - I salute those scientists and artists past and present, whose work was deemed worthy of this great honour.

Today, we find ourselves in the former Amsterdam Exchange building. A magnificent place. An altar to progress. A bastion of commerce. A perfect setting to reflect, very briefly, on science and research at a time of economic stagnation and crisis.

Because also in the scientific community, the current financial and economic crises have not gone unnoticed. As everywhere else, budgets and programmes are under severe pressure. Many of you are faced with some tough choices.

At the same time, many with a stake in the economy are exactly looking to science and research for ways out of the current impasse. Those who stress the need for austerity and those who hold more Keynesian views, often do find themselves in agreement that science and research are essential machine parts for the engine of economic growth.

If you listen carefully, you can hear them rattling at the door, begging for your help. And they're right to do so. Because scientific research is vital to creating wealth and wellbeing. To stimulating economic competition and innovation, and to solving social problems. In close consultation with businesses and with governments. The economic value of applied science and research can hardly be understated.

But this realisation can also be self-defeating. In many ways, science is not really a business and can hardly be run as such. It does not always follow economic rules of supply and demand. Scientists often start working without really knowing for sure what they are about to produce. And their greatest moment may come when the final product turns out to be different from anything that anyone had dared to anticipate. No regular business could survive in such a model. But this is exactly the model that has given humanity some of its greatest gifts.

This is what former Academy President Robbert Dijkgraaf referred to as 'the usefulness of useless research'. If we don't give scientists enough freedom to follow their curiosity, or if we don't provide scope for intuition, chance and luck, we may limit the very possibilities that research has to offer. And this would clearly be counterproductive.

The American educationalist Abraham Flexner was the first to coin this phrase, 'the usefullness of useless research'. In1921, ina passionate defence of the value of the unfettered creative mind. He was convinced that the less researchers were pressured to come up with practical applications, the more they would end up contributing to the wellbeing of society.

And, in a way, he was right. It was so-called 'useless' research that sowed the seeds of some of the major advances of recent centuries. Like nuclear energy, computers, television and the jet engine. Nobody foresaw them or felt a need for them. They could only spring from the minds of individuals whose creativity was given free rein. People who sometimes didn't know themselves what they were doing. As Einstein said, 'If I knew what I was doing, it wouldn't be called research.'

Ladies and gentlemen,

Even if we would leave the financial and economic situation aside, the world is facing huge global challenges. Let me just mention the increasing shortage of the three main prerequisites for human life: water, food and energy. The three are becoming more and more closely linked. Radical and comprehensive approaches to this nexus are desperately needed.

The great challenges facing our planet will place great demands on the scientific community in the years ahead. Even more so in times of economic downturn. As I said, people continue to look to science and research as essential parts of the solution. We need you, more than ever!

But that is exactly why it's also more important than ever to underline this usefulness of 'useless' research. To safeguard scientific freedom. Because it's precisely that freedom that often bears fruit and leads to those breakthroughs that benefit society.

Ladies and gentlemen.

Even though we clearly can't predict those big breakthroughs in science, we can try to recognise them and pay tribute to them. And this is what the Heineken-prizes are about. 

The Heineken Prizes are awarded to scientists - and artists - who have done outstanding work in their field and are a source of inspiration to others. To those who have inspired and to those who may inspire in the future.

Inspiring others to great deeds may be the best way to confront any crisis. It is this very inspiration of great minds such as these that allows us to face the future with confidence.

So let me say again: my warmest congratulations to all today's laureates. You have used your freedom to the maximum extent. The world may be a better place for it. And this is what makes you a source of inspiration to us all!