Science and the struggle for relevance

L.K. Hessels

Research output: ThesisDoctoral thesis 1 (Research UU / Graduation UU)


This thesis deals with struggles for relevance of university researchers, their efforts to make their work correspond with ruling standards of relevance and to influence these standards. Its general research question is: How to understand changes in the struggle for relevance of Dutch academic researchers in chemistry, biology and agricultural science, in the period 1975-2005? With this study of the relevance of science I aim to contribute to the understanding of transformations in the knowledge infrastructure, as discussed in a large and expanding literature using concepts like Mode 2 knowledge production, post-academic science and the Triple Helix of university-government-industry relationships. A state-of-the-art of this literature is provided in Chapter 2. My theoretical starting point is a distinction between the agency of scientists and the structures patterning their behavior. In this thesis I develop and use three central concepts to analyze struggles for relevance: the credibility cycle, the science-society contract, and the research system. This research follows a case study approach and deals with chemistry, biology and agricultural science in the Netherlands. Within each case I focus in particular on two or three fields representing the breadth of the discipline in terms of possible stakeholders. Data have been drawn from in-depth interviews with 47 academic researchers, and with a number scholarly experts and representatives of various organizations in the research system. Moreover I have analyzed a selection of governmental policy documents, reports and strategic plans of research councils, foresight studies, evaluations and other important publications about the disciplines. In the period 1975-2005, three general trends were visible in the struggles for relevance of Dutch academic researchers in chemistry, biology and agricultural science: the intensification of the struggle for relevance during the collection of data, the decreasing value of practical applications as a source of recognition, and the intensification of the struggle for relevance in the context of funding acquisition. However, the changes also varied across scientific fields, regarding the intensity of stakeholder interactions during data collection, the precise value of practical applications as a source of recognition, the actual influence of stakeholders on the research agenda, and the relationship between practical applications and scientific productivity. The changes observed can be understood as effects of structural changes, in particular the diversification of funding, the rise of performance evaluations, and changing views on the societal position of the university, in combination with characteristics of scientific fields and their stakeholders. My findings have two implications for the debate about changing science systems. First, this study shows that the increasing pressure for productivity, as measured in bibliometric terms, can counteract the pressure for practical utility. Second, my work indicates that the debate deserves a further differentiation, as the dynamics of science vary much more across scientific fields than most literature suggests.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Utrecht University
  • van Lente, H., Primary supervisor
  • Smits, R.E.H.M., Supervisor
  • Grin, J., Supervisor, External person
Award date19 Nov 2010
Place of PublicationOisterwijk
Print ISBNs978-90-8891-205-4
Publication statusPublished - 19 Nov 2010


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