Pieter van Gelder


Professor of Safety Science in the Safety and Security Science section. Also: Director of the TU Delft Safety and Security Institute, Chairman of the ESRA Technical Committee on Natural Hazards (European Safety and Reliability Association) and Programme Director of several Delft Toptech programmes.

What has been the highlight of your career

"If I consider my academic highlights, there have been several. First of all, my graduation from Eindhoven University of Technology's Faculty of Technical Mathematics and Computer Science. As a child I was really good at maths, thanks to my father. He taught me long division and how to calculate complex figures from an early age, and he also taught me to play chess. So mathematics was an obvious choice for me, and my graduation was the crowning achievement of my studies. I am also proud of my PhD dissertation on the reliability analyses of flood defences and the statistical methods used in that context. That was in 2000.  I was even named 'millennium doctor' because I was the first in the new millennium. And, last but not least: my appointment as Professor of Safety Science here in Delft in 2013."

Greatest challenge

"Within the Safety Science Research Group we develop mathematical models for risk management. Hydraulic engineering already has excellent models for quantifying and modelling safety versus flooding. And very good quantitative models have also been developed in other fields, such as chemistry, the food industry (food safety) and aviation. To me the greatest challenge is to further improve those models, and to harmonise and standardise the mathematical techniques used within the safety domains. The major advantage of quantitative models is that you can use them to make evidence-based decisions. If the results calculated from a model show that safety is insufficient, you can take well-founded measures to increase that safety. Another question concerns the extent to which we should increase that safety. Because: how safe is safe enough? Techniques have been developed for this too, and we want to optimise them further."

What do you enjoy most about your work

"Coming up with new ideas, and of course working with colleagues, students and PhD candidates. I also very much enjoy writing papers and presenting my work at conferences."

Why Delft

"TU Delft, and the safety group in particular, has built up an excellent reputation in the Netherlands and throughout the world. As far as I'm concerned, Delft is the Dutch Mecca of technology. There are few places in the Netherlands where you can find so much technological knowledge close at hand,  and I feel that I work right at the heart of it. It is an honour to have been able to take over this chair from my predecessor Ben Ale."

What is your best character trait

"If I may say so myself: I am patient and a good listener. I am also able to integrate and associate well, and have an analytical mind."

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

"The question of whether or society is safe enough, or whether we should raise the safety level even further. And also: how much money we are prepared to spend on that. Although there is already some attention for it, now that we are facing the economic crisis and the Netherlands has major deficits in its balance sheets, the policies pursued focus mainly on the short term. Unfortunately, the long-term risks are swept under the carpet. The thinking seems to be that there is no money, and everything will be all right because it has always been all right up to now. But consider safety in relation to flooding for example. Of the 4,000 km of dykes in the Netherlands, some 30% do not satisfy the safety standards! Although the risks are high, evidently politicians do not accept this. Decisions on this are pushed back, yet they absolutely belong high on the political agenda."

What is your worst character trait

"I have a hard time being strict, and therefore I sometimes agree to requests or proposals too quickly. I should say 'no' more often - also to my youngest son, haha."

Your source of inspiration

The late TU Delft professor and my good friend Jan van Noortwijk,  who passed away in 2008 at the age of 46. He did a great deal of work to develop new mathematical models to describe flooding risks. I see the way in which he conducted research and published as a great example. Another source of inspiration is Professor Mahesh Pandey of the University of Waterloo's Institute for Risk Research (Canada). He has been to my office here in Delft a few times and I have found his structured approach to his work to be very inspiring.

Your life philosophy

"Try to live your life in a way that makes you happy."

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