History of the FWO

The start - 1928-1945

After the First World War, it became clear that the Belgian economy needed more innovation. It was not just necessary to build up the country again following four years of German occupation (1914-1918). Belgium had been one of the most important industrial powers in the world since the 19th century, but after the First World War, the Belgian economy was in need of some innovation.

When King Albert I called for a fresh impetus for the fundamental scientific research as the basis for more applied research and economic development on 1 October 1927, he voiced what other policy makers had already been experiencing for some time. The occasion on which he made his speech, the 110th anniversary of the Cockerill steel factory in Seraing, could not have been more symbolic. It concerned one of the places where the young Belgium’s industrial take-off had begun and that was still important for the economy of the country at that moment. However, this commemorative celebration offered the opportunity to thoroughly examine the current situation and prepare for the future.

Albert’s speech signalled a very concrete initiative: on 27 April 1928, the National Fund for Scientific Research (NFWO) was founded. It was one of the first research councils on the European continent. The business sector took the lead in this: the bankers Emile Francqui and Félicien Cattier signed the document and the start-up capital of just over 109 million Belgian francs (approx. 73 million euros) came primarily from businesses. The role of the state was much smaller at that time then it is today and its activities in the field of academic policy remained very modest for a long time still. The Board of Trustees of the NFWO accurately reflected who was providing direction then: it seated representatives from industry and high finance, in addition to members of the Catholic University of Leuven and the Free University of Brussels. It was a French-speaking assembly and the NFWO retained this francophone and rather elitist profile for decades. Jean Willems, who was in charge of the day-to-day management from its foundation up until his death in 1970, embodied this profile.

Jean Willems also managed the University Foundation. This organisation stemmed from the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) in 1920, which was in charge of the provision of food to the suffering population during the First World War. The later American president Herbert Hoover supported this initiative and top banker Francqui played the leading role on the Belgian side. The latter came up with the idea during the war to create an inter-university foundation to support higher education and science. The University Foundation, which was started with part of the CRB capital, provided for this by means of student grants and subsidies to scientists. This foundation and the NFWO were closely connected with each other through Willems and due to the fact that they were located in the same building in Egmont Street. The ties became slightly looser later and the NFWO moved into a new office building in 1972, Egmontstraat 5, where the FWO and theFNRS are still located today. Both institutions have always remained good neighbours, both literally and metaphorically.

At the start, the NFWO had to work with limited resources. The capital available only allowed approximately 140 million francs (3.6 million euros in value of 2008) to be spent annually. In the following years, that budget almost doubled, but as a result of the Second World War that shrunk to less than a quarter. During the first working year, the NFWO awarded 158 grants in total, a number that rose the following year. From the outset, PhD fellowships were financed, as well as the mandate of associates (associé), somewhat comparable to the current postdoctoral mandate. During the first 25 years of its existence, the NFWO granted 456 PhD fellowships, a modest amount from a modern-day perspective: in 2010, there were already 856 PhD fellows in office with the FWO alone. The upward trend in the number of predoctoral mandates since 1928 displayed an upward kink during the 1960’s in particular. The democratisation of the university education had of course something to do with that. The channel for postdoctoral mandates demonstrated a comparable evolution. For established academics, there were initially the allowances to scholars and funds for technical personnel, research trips and equipment. It was only after the war that the research projects as we know them today came along. The newly-created ‘associated funds’ (see later) paved the way for these. At the beginning, 24 specialised scientific committees made decisions on the applications at the NFWO.

From 1929, a Bureau Spécial des Relations Science-Industrie (Special Office for Science-Industry Relations) was also launched under the umbrella of the fund. It was responsible for the allocation of part of the funds to research projects that were focused on applications in industry, which partly financed the projects. The mixed committee that ran this organisation consisted of representatives from the NFWO and the Comité Central Industriel (Central Industrial Committee, CCI), one of the most important employer organisations at that time and predecessor to the current Federation of Belgian Enterprises (VBO). Fundamental and applied research were less demarcated institutionally in those times compared to Flanders today. 

Science in a new social context – 1945-1970

After the Second World War, the concept of the ‘welfare state’ and that of the ‘mixed economy’ were radically continued. The interwar decades had already displayed the first outlines of that, but only afterwards did the government, together with the civil society organisations, begin to intervene in the social and economic structures on a large scale. The government sector showed a dramatic increase in size and that also applied to the part of the national income that it relied on for its functioning. This new wind did not blow less strongly in higher education and scientific policy. Not only because of the opinion that science was essential for the social-economic development of Belgium, but also because of the conclusion that it once again risked falling behind in research. Multinational companies did come here to set up operations, but they did not bring their research departments with them. Belgium had to offer a solution to the Third Industrial Revolution

With one eye on a consistent and broadly-supported public scientific policy, the Nationale Raad voor Wetenschapsbeleid (National Council for Scientific Policy) was established in 1959, together with a Ministerial Committee and an Inter-ministerial Committee. The new public scientific policy was not, however, limited to the establishment of new policy bodies, but only took shape due to an unprecedented amount of public funds for science.

For example, the government also started supporting the NFWO in 1947. In the beginning, this was still a modest contribution to an already modest budget, which only reached the pre-war level in 1950 again. The statutory fiscal exemption for private donations to science in 1951 did not, however, offer a thorough solution. The government gradually started becoming more involved and from the 1960’s the NFWO budget rose to a current value of 76.1 million euros by 1970. That went hand in hand with more funds for higher education, which displayed a democratisation and counted an increasingly growing number of students. Extra money flowed, in particular, to the university expansion, which entailed the creation of new universities. In 1971, the funds of the NFWO were legally set at 4.44% of the normal expenditure of the six universities at the time.

But there was also the economic context that demonstrated a shift of the old sectors, which had gone past their peak, to new companies and the development of new technology and knowledge. Belgium could not miss the boat. Both fundamental and applied research remained important in this respect, but the distinction between both had already been strengthened organisationally in 1944 with the replacement of the Bureau Spéciale Science-Industrie by the Instituut tot Aanmoediging van het wetenschappelijk Onderzoek in Nijverheid en Landbouw (Institute for the Promotion of Scientific Research in Industry and Agriculture, IWONL-IRSIA). Its role in Flanders would be later taken over by the Instituut voor Aanmoediging van Innovatie door Wetenschap en Technologie (Institute for the Promotion of Science and Technology, IWT). Fundamental and applied research thus became, even more than before, two differentiated paths, although not completely separate. The measure in which the one arm received financial means compared to the other remained a subject of debate ever since.

Just like with the IWONL, the NFWO became involved in other new initiatives. For example, the NFWO, and later its legal successor, played a role in the management of the so-called ‘associated funds’: the Inter-University Institute for Nuclear Physics from 1947 (known as the Inter-University Institute of Nuclear Sciences (IIKW) since 1952), the Fund for Medical Scientific Research (FGWO) and the Fund for Collective Fundamental Research - Researchers Initiative (FKFO). On the Flemish side, the financing of these funds was completely transferred and the management partially transferred to the FWO, with the FKFO even being completely transferred. The aim of these special funds was to get research projects in specific fields on track.

As an answer to the cross-border development of the sciences, the NFWO strengthened its international ties. In 1974, for example, it belonged to the founding members of the European Science Foundation (ESF) and since then the FWO have continued to commit to cooperation in Europe and with partners elsewhere in the world. The transnational dimension has further lived up to its promise by means of travel credits and the stimulation of international scientific contacts in connection with research mandates and projects. 

Towards the Research Foundation - Flanders – 1970-2015

Soon after the establishment of the NFWO, there was protest in Flemish circles about the number of subsidised Flemish researchers being too low. This was a consequence of fewer applications by Dutch candidates. In 1930, Ghent University was the only one completely based on the Dutch language. The University of Leuven only began slowly with Dutch-language in addition to French-language education in the following years. Flanders clearly had some catching up to do in terms of higher education and scientific research in its own language and the Flemish Movement regularly signalled that the NFWO had to play its part in that.

Already at the end of the 19th century, the idea lived in Flanders that science in one’s own language was essential for the development of this region and its population. The Flemish scientific conferences that were regularly organised for various fields of study were proof of that. Coupled with the striving towards a Flemish scientific practice, there was an increasing insight into the importance of knowledge for the building and innovation of the economy in Flanders. The French-speaking management of the NFWO did not appear, however, to be convinced for a long time that the Flemish arrears in the number of researchers and the underrepresentation of Dutch academics in the committees required action. In the 1930’s, the number of Flemish PhD fellowships did not even reach 10 per cent of the total and even at the end of the 1960’s it barely amounted to 39 per cent.

During the post-war period, the economic significance of Wallonia, on the other hand, steadily decreased and the ‘golden sixties’ were an especially golden time for Flanders, which broke through as the industrial export region of the country. The democratisation of the higher education ensured that the number of students in Flanders was in proportion to the Flemish prevalence in the total population. The Flemish self-awareness increased proportionately and that was not without consequences for the NFWO.

From 1969, one year before the first reform of the Belgian state in accordance with community lines, the committees and the Board of Trustees were composed on the basis of linguistic parity. The following year, when Jean Willems also passed away, each language group received its own budget. In 1988, a new state reform was traced out and scientific policy was transferred to the communities. In that same year, the Board was split into two language rooms, each with its own vice-chairman. A separate secretary-general was introduced for each group. In 1992, three boards of executive and supervisory directors were created: one for each community and one for federal subject matter. In 1996, the Flemish Board of Trustees transferred to the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO), which concluded the first management agreement with the Flemish community in the following year. Since then, the FWO budget has become separate again from the allowances set for the universities. The FWO saw its revenue increase in the following years. The Flemish Community is, moreover, the largest financier, accounting for almost 80 per cent of the FWO budget in 2010. The Federal Government then still guaranteed slightly more than a fifth of the financial means.

On 20 January 2006, the FWO received the status of Public Utility Foundation by Royal Decree. The old NFWO no longer existed: in addition to the FWO, the Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique (Research Foundation FNRS) on the French side, and the Federal Fund for Scientific Research (FFWO), at Belgian level, were the legal successors. The autonomy of the FWO was even more accentuated and enshrined with the Decree concerning the organisation and financing of the science and innovation policy of 30 April 2009. In this Decree, it was granted a private-law status in the form of an Extern Verzelfstandigd Agentschap (External Independent Agency). 

2016: To a new FWO

The SBO and TBM programmes as well as the IWT Doctoral (PhD) Grants for Strategic Basic Research have been transferred to FWO since January 1st. In addition to the pillar for strategic basic research, another pillar is being created within the FWO for the funding of major research infrastructure, which now also accommodates the programmes of the Hercules Foundation.

This text is based on: