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Interview with director Beate Völker: ‘Crime is a wicked problem’

Since November 1, 2021, Beate Völker is the new director of the NSCR. She gave an interview for NWO about her background and her ambitions. 'Society is so much on edge now that people are starting to behave aggressively.'
By Prof. Beate Völker | 10 January 2022

What is a highlight in your career so far, and what does this step to NSCR mean to you?

'I have done many different things, was continuously excited by new questions and then felt the need to throw the windows wide open. The time that most inspired me and during which I learned more than at any other time in my life was at the start of the 1990s, when I did my PhD research into social networks in the DDR and how the dismantling of the communist system influenced those. I never again had the opportunity to focus on something so deeply later in my career. I am pleased with my new position, mainly because the work field of NSCR matches my own research interests so well.'

What is it that attracts you to NSCR?

'I have been a huge admirer of NSCR for many years. It has an incredible international reputation. What makes this institute so special is that it combines different disciplines to investigate criminological issues. And that is necessary because crime is a wicked problem, and difficult to tease apart. If you simply pull just one string, you will only tighten the knot. To unravel a problem, you always need to pull on different strings at the same time. Another thing that makes NSCR special is the many societal partners it has, such as foundations for victims of crime, the police, the rehabilitation service and government bodies. That makes it a hub between science and society.'

What are your first impressions?

'NSCR is a lively institute and the researchers there are very committed. An awful lot is done with very few resources. There are many young researchers with great ideas! So it is fantastic that I can work for these people.'

What do you bring to NSCR?

'I have consciously done many different things and lived in various places: I moved from Germany to the Netherlands, from psychology to sociology, from Amsterdam to Utrecht. Therefore I am good at observing things from different perspectives, and I’ve learned to build bridges between disciplines and people.'

What do you want to achieve with NSCR?

'I like to think in terms of current issues that NSCR can contribute to, such as cybercrime, crimes against the environment and wildlife, and the prevention of crime. I would also like to involve new disciplines in NSCR that can help us to further clarify these questions. For example, artificial intelligence, mathematics, ecology, sustainability studies or complexity sciences. I have enough ideas, but we will need to look at what is actually possible. The environment of NSCR must be able to see the focus, but I have no plans to cut back on the diversity within the institute. On the contrary, I think that diversity is necessary to approach such a complex problem as crime. However, I will emphasise the need for coherency, the unity in diversity.'

How will you collaborate with universities?

'I have been given the task of ensuring that the national role of NSCR is strengthened, so I will set to work on that. I will visit all of the criminology courses and departments at Dutch universities to map the kind of work that is being done in the Netherlands and then position NSCR on that national map. Only by working together can we effectively tackle the issues and place NSCR in the spotlight both at a national and an international level.'

Why is NSCR research so relevant today?

'The current corona crisis is increasing the schisms within society. The differences between higher and lower educated people are magnified, just like the differences between old and young people, people with and without children or people with and without a migration background. And new differences are also arising, especially those between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. Society is so on edge now that people are inclined to behave aggressively. ’Examples are the riots on Urk and in Den Bosch, or the German petrol station attendant who was shot dead when he asked a client to wear his nose and mouth mask. Aggression like this precedes criminal behaviour. It is very worrying that the schisms are only becoming deeper and that we clearly lack the repertoire of resources needed to deal with this. That chimes with my vision of criminality. I see aggressive and criminal behaviour foremost as a consequence of failing social cohesion. So, preventing increasing divisions between different groups within society is, in my opinion, a current topic that NSCR can definitely investigate.'

Which science policy theme speaks to you most?

'I very much recognise myself in the need to reward academics differently. The past fifteen years have only seen a growth in the number of extra tasks that you are required to do in addition to quality research and teaching. You need to be a manager, an entrepreneur who arranges his own funding, take part in valorisation, appear in the newspaper, et cetera. And your value is continuously assessed by your line manager and your peers. It is all together just too much. Nobody can excel in everything, and neither is that in the slightest bit necessary. Make sure you excel in one or two things and for the rest, stay above the lower limit.'

Can NWO do something to restore the decreasing trust in science?

'The Rathenau Instituut recently carried out research which revealed that, on average, trust in science in the Netherlands is relatively high. However, the corona crisis has increased the schisms between those who do and those who do not trust science. I think that NWO can best tackle this by supporting the institutes and increasing their visibility. After all, they are the ambassadors of science.'

Who is Beate Völker?

Prof. Beate Völker was born in the small German town of Bensheim, between Frankfurt and Heidelberg. She studied psychology at the University of Heidelberg and gained her doctorate in sociology from Utrecht University. Until her appointment at NSCR, she was Professor of Urban Living and Social Networks and chair of the Department of Human Geography and Spatial Planning at Utrecht University. Prior to that, she led a research group at the University of Amsterdam. Völker has an impressive track record as a researcher. She is particularly interested in social cohesion, for example in the form of friendship networks.

About Beate Völker outside of science

Beate Völker (1963) lives in Utrecht. She has two daughters and one of her daughters still lives at home. In her spare time, she likes to sing as a mezzo-soprano. She will shortly play the role of Polly in the Brecht opera ‘The Threepenny Opera’ in a small arts theatre in Amsterdam. She is a cultural omnivore and enjoys literature, theatre, music and the visual arts. She also likes mountain hiking, jogging and skiing. That she is clearly the ideal candidate for her new job is also apparent from her enthusiasm for the German rock band ‘Element Of Crime’.

Text: Mariette Huisjes
This interview was previously published in the newsletter Inside NWO-I of December 2021.

Prof. Beate Völker


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