Michel van Eeten


Professor of Public Administration, in particular the governance of infrastructures in the Policy, Organisation, Law and Gaming section. I am also the director of the TPM Graduate School, which is currently being set up.

Tell us about your personal life?

I am married with two daughters. We have been living in Delft for a few years now. Originally I am from a small village in Limburg, although our lives here in Delft have a village-like character. Everything occurs within a radius of about five kilometres. We use our bikes to get around.

Favourite leisure activity?

My favourite leisure activity is reading and writing. I have more books on my bedside table than I can read. It’s a matter of curiosity. Sometimes I don’t go beyond the beginning of a book, and that’s enough. I have been writing for almost ten years now. At first, it was just for my weblog, but after a few years that blog brought me into contact with a literary agent, who guided me towards writing a novel. I wrote it in parallel to my work at the university. In the end, it turned into a story that featured a considerable science component. The book came out at the end of 2008, and I am now working on a second novel. I find it so fascinating that I have reduced my commitments as an academic so I have more time for writing. As well as a novel, I have a few other writing ideas that I would like to try.

Highlight of your career?

I am very sensitive to the need to find the right shape for things - a research project, a presentation or an idea. If you can find that shape or form, then being an academic is the best profession I can imagine. A moment like that can occur at any time, even late in the afternoon in a little back room somewhere.

Sometimes, the right form is actually perfectly conventional. Last year, I found a way of investigating a particular question relating to internet security using an econometric method, something that apparently had never been done previously. That got the attention of the BBC, among others. At other times, the form is somewhat less conventional. For my inaugural lecture I wanted to write something that was somewhere between an academic discourse and a literary essay - an experiment. The result was far from perfect, but it was a good moment to start my professorship with a new form.

Biggest current challenge?

Together with Johannes Bauer of Michigan State University and two PhD students, Shirin Tabatabaie and Hadi Asghari, I have been researching patterns in the worldwide network of infected computers - so-called botnets. We approached this in classic TPM fashion: we built econometric models that used policy and economic factors in order to get to the bottom of this technical security question. It gave us worldwide visibility, in the academic world and among government bodies alike. We now have to develop new ideas to take the research further. 

What do you enjoy most about your work?

The intellectual freedom. It’s a classical answer, but it’s something I genuinely experience. It’s a great privilege to be able to go so deeply into the ideas that fascinate you the most.

Why Delft?

Although I studied public administration, I am also a science student drop-out: I studied physics for a year in Eindhoven, which was not a great success. However, I have always remained interested in science and technology, which makes TPM a logical place to be. Obviously, that is a version of events that I have put together in retrospect. It is true, of course, but if I had ended up somewhere else for whatever reason, then I would have come up with a different account, which would have been equally true.

Your best characteristic?

Curiosity and the enjoyment I take in ‘tinkering’ with things. I often spend an hour or two with some PhD student I don’t even know, trying to get to grips with their research. At times like that, I forget everything else. If I manage to get an idea together that successfully and elegantly connects questions, data and conclusions, that makes me very happy.

Your worst characteristic?

Impatience, and my inability to conceal it. 

What subject do you think should be high on the political agenda?

That is not something you should ask academics. It has very little to do with expertise and everything to do with what is going on in society. That is what politics is about. Every academic would like a greater focus on their field. Thank God that kind of narcissism does not determine the political agenda.

Source of inspiration?

Science itself. Great research, discerning observations. I sometimes read a book or an article and think, ‘that is the kind of quality I would like to achieve’.

Your life philosophy?

Not the faintest idea.

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