The Dutch Research Council (NWO) and universities are implementing measures to reduce pressure on the academic community

14 January 2020

Dutch academia is in the international vanguard. This tremendous achievement is down to the efforts of our researchers day in, day out. However, the downside of our success is becoming increasingly evident.

The Dutch Research Council (NWO) and universities are implementing measures to reduce pressure on the academic community

Dutch academia is in the international vanguard. This tremendous achievement is down to the efforts of our researchers day in, day out. However, the downside of our success is becoming increasingly evident. Unrelenting growth in terms of student numbers, attendant underfunding from the public purse and competition for research funding have given rise to considerable pressure on the academic community. At the request of Ingrid van Engelshoven (Minister of Education, Culture and Science), the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) and NWO are currently implementing joint measures to reduce the pressure. These measures are geared towards both the short and the medium term. Removing these structural bottlenecks in the long run will require additional resources and a greater degree of continuity in academic funding on the part of the government.

What was once an extremely robust structure has now become a rickety system. As workloads are already high, the funding model is only exacerbating this pressure. Due to the fact that the funding flows are so inextricably intertwined, what constitutes a solution in one part of the system can cause or aggravate a problem elsewhere. This situation is requiring NWO as well as the VSNU to take joint, cohesive measures in order to prevent major shocks and the shifting of bottlenecks. While the objective of these proposed measures in the short run is to continue reducing the pressure associated with applications, the aim in the medium term is to look more broadly at academics’ knowledge and expertise. The Weckhuysen committee’s advice is set to be published at the end of January 2020. Based on this advice, NWO and the collaborating universities will flesh out the available options to improve the balance between direct and indirect government funding.

Measures to reduce and manage pressure associated with applications

Academics spend a great deal of time on writing research proposals, albeit with little chance of success. They could have spent this time on carrying out research. The measures to reduce the pressure associated with applications which NWO implemented at the end of 2017 after wide-ranging consultation have had an effect. New developments have occurred since that juncture, such as the introduction of the Dutch Research Agenda (NWA). With this regard, a large number of applications could not be honoured. Consequently, additional measures are now necessary on the part of both NWO and the universities. Universities regard the high pressure associated with applications as a significant problem that they are keen to solve from the perspective of their responsibility as good employers. Within the compass of promotion criteria, they will attach less importance to applying for and securing research funding. Young researchers will be given more scope for development (including exemption from submitting applications) and the university Research Support Services will be reinforced in their advisory role when it comes to submitting applications. NWO will introduce an array of additional measures to reduce the pressure associated with applications, such as applying without deadlines, introducing resubmission with restrictions, simplifying application procedures and improving communication thereon. The ultimate choice of measures will partly be determined by the nature of the NWO instrument and fine-tuned in conjunction with the universities. Finally, NWO and the universities will look into whether and how a smart, phased introduction of quotas might reduce the pressure associated with applications in combination with types of preselection at the universities. Two prerequisites are that NWO must not shift the work accompanying a selection procedure to the universities and that there should be a genuine reduction in the burden on researchers.

Reducing workloads by diversifying career policy

A reduction in workloads is to be effected in the medium term by increasing the scope for diversification and making career paths more dynamic. The evaluation of academics will place less emphasis on quantity (such as the number of publications) and more on quality, content, scholarly integrity, creativity, education, impact and leadership. A greater degree of attention to and regard for the quality of a research proposal will help to reduce the number of applications. These measures dovetail with the position paper ‘Room for everyone’s talent’ recently published by a broad coalition (VSNU, NWO, KNAW, NFU and ZonMw) with a view to striking a new balance in terms of recognising and appreciating academics.

Science benefits from stability. In the case of the aforementioned measures, NWO and the universities will perform a solid analysis of the anticipated impact beforehand, introduce a well-considered mix of actions for each instrument and field, and continuously monitor progress by way of periodic assessments. With this regard, a structural reduction in pressure on the academic community will largely be dependent on increased public funding.

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Source: NWO