Meet the DEEPEN team: Natascha van der Zwan

Natascha van der Zwan is an Assistant Professor in Public Administration at Leiden University and principal investigator in the DEEPEN project. In this interview, Natascha tells about the diversity of her job, how the DEEPEN project started, what issues she was particularly excited about, how she recharges her batteries, her mum’s microbrewery and what advice she would give policymakers and politicians.

What is your main job as principal investigator in the DEEPEN project? 

It’s a very diverse job! Together with Philipp Golka, I’m carrying out the research on the Dutch pension system. So far, we’ve studied how pension governance is arranged in the Netherlands and how it has changed over time. The next step is to conduct a number of case studies on different forms of pension governance, which I will be coordinating for all project teams. But I am also in charge of our project communications, for instance through our website or Twitter account. We do this together with Philipp and with our student-assistant Abdelkarim Megaïz. Finally, all the PIs together coordinate the project and discuss how all the different components can best fit together.  

You were among those designing the project. Give us a little background info how the project came about. 

Karen, Tobias and I have been working on very similar themes for quite a few years now. After meeting each other at conferences, we decided to write a grant proposal together. As these things often go, our proposal wasn’t very successful at first. We received a number of rejections. But we kept working on it over the years. Juan joined our team, after we realized that we needed someone with a more quantitative background to complement our own areas of expertise. And, I guess, that did it! The four of us created a new proposal out of our earlier research ideas and were very happy to receive funding from NORFACE.  

When designing the DEEPEN project, what particular questions or issues were you particularly excited about? 

That’s a difficult question, because there are so many! For me, one of the most exciting parts of the project is the survey that we will be doing among pension plan participants across Europe. It’s the part of the research that is probably most removed from what I do on a daily basis, so the novelty of it (for me) is very exciting. There already are quite a few surveys on pensions, of course, but they often don’t cover the topics I’m interested in or the questions are formulated a bit differently than I would do. So while I won’t be leading the survey part of the project, I am looking forward to brainstorming with other project members on what the survey will like. And very curious about the outcomes, of course!  

Politicians and policymakers regularly discuss pensions. If you could give one advice that they will follow no matter what, what would it be? 

My advice would be to take the pension plan participant seriously. All too often, I read about how pension savers are short-sighted, they don’t understand pensions or they just don’t care. And while this may be true to some extent, I don’t think the implication should be that we should just ignore the participant’s viewpoints and switch to technocratic policy-making instead. Participants’ preferences and opinions matter, regardless of how much knowledge they possess or how much they care about their pension plan. Luckily, there are people and organizations in the pension world who take a more inclusive approach to pension policy. I’m very excited that the DEEPEN project allows us to study these new initiatives and draw lessons from them.  

Working in academia can be quite stressful – particularly during a pandemic. What do you like to do to recharge your batteries? 

Just very simple things. When my daughter was still home from school, we baked a lot. Something fun, for instance from Kim Joy’s baking book. I also love to walk or bike. And my family and I were given a small allotment garden during the last lockdown. It’s very close to my house, so I often take a break from my workday by walking to the garden and watering/admiring the plants. I am not much of a gardener, but I really like it. I automatically slow down when I’m there and it’s a nice change of scenery from home office life.  

Final question: it has come to our ears that your mum runs a microbrewery. When can we all visit? 

Ha! My mother does run a brewery, a nano brewery to be precise. The brewery is not open to the public, but if you’re ever in the Schoonhoven area (Netherlands): check for Argentum beers in any local bar, restaurant or supermarket.  

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