NWO’s response to the Weckhuysen report: major additional investments are indeed necessary

29 January 2020

Today the Weckhuysen Committee of the Royal Netherlands Academy for Arts and Sciences (KNAW) published its report ‘Balance in the Research System’. In it, the committee presents its advice on how to strike an optimum balance between ‘unfettered’ and ‘strategic research’ in NWO’s research funding.

The committee found that strategic research outweighs unfettered research by 2 to 1 at NWO. To reach a more equal balance between unfettered and strategic research, the committee recommends increasing the budget for unfettered research to 500 million euros. According to the committee, a more equal balance cannot be achieved by simply shifting NWO’s existing resources. NWO would need to set up an additional permanent fund to give unfettered research equal standing.

KNAW’s advice was prompted by a motion in the Dutch Lower House in 2018 regarding the ‘reassessment of open competition’. According to the committee, unfettered research focuses mainly on pioneering scientific knowledge. Examples of this at NWO include the NWO Talent Programme (Veni-Vidi-Vici) and the Open Competition. Strategic research involves the converging of forces around new or innovative combinations of academic research and social challenges, according to the committee. Examples include the Dutch National Research Agenda (NWA) and public-private cooperative research for the Knowledge and Innovation Contract (KIC).

NWO's key role: more independence to join forces in academia

In addition to striking a balance between unfettered and strategic research, the committee examined other issues as well, such as the role that NWO funding plays vis-à-vis core funding by the universities. In its report, the Weckhuysen committee outlines a number of key roles for NWO, the universities and the government. According to the committee, NWO can use its position as an independent administrative body to safeguard the balance between unfettered and strategic research in consultation with the academic sector, the government and societal stakeholders. NWO is keen to assume this key role. Indeed, this is in line with the transition that NWO has implemented in recent years and dovetails with the ambition outlined in NWO’s strategy to fulfil a Nexus role. NWO has also begun to simplify the conditions for funding in its new strategy, in particular by further harmonising the application procedures in its domains. ‘We will explore in more detail with the involved parties how we can give concrete further effect to the advice in the report. As the committee indicates, the government also needs to fulfil its role by ensuring additional structural investments in unfettered research,’ says NWO chair Stan Gielen.

Comprehensive approach to staff policy to counter ‘projectification’

The universities are still best-placed to select and supervise academic talent. This requires a comprehensive approach to talent policy and the different types of research funding throughout a researcher’s entire academic career. NWO recognises the importance of this kind of comprehensive approach and stresses that it should not only be applied to talent policy but also to overall staff policy. This also dovetails well with the comprehensive plan to reduce pressure on the system, which NWO and the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) already announced in early 2020. In this plan, the organisations also recommend further diversifying career policy and changing the way academics are recognised and rewarded. This approach is all the more necessary to counter so-called ‘projectification’, as a result of which many temporary staff members at universities move from one short-term project to the next. NWO considers the rolling grant, as a fund financed by direct funding in order to reduce the pressure on indirect funding, a good option to introduce more steadiness and continuity into the academic system.

See also

Source: NWO


Olivier Morot (spokesperson) Olivier Morot (spokesperson) t: +31 (0)6 53175377 o.morot@nwo.nl