The ten commandments for assigning subsidies

If appearances aren’t deceiving, the UU is dividing more and more funds through program subsidies. Researchers and research groups from several faculties have to compete to get what little money there is. The Executive Board is in charge, and makes the important decisions – albeit often assisted by a committee of wise men and women. For the riffraff in the workplace, this is met with mixed feelings.

The recent procedure surrounding the selection of ‘hubs’, for instance, is marked by a number of surprising plot twists. Perhaps it’s not proper to complain about it, but we can expect a participant of the strategic theme ‘Institutions for Open Societies’ to at least let the experience lead to reflection about what the rules (the ‘institutions’) of this kind of procedure are. This contribution contains a proposal to that cause, in the shape of ten commandments for a good procedure.

The first and doubtless the most important commandment is that the program subsidy needs a clear foundation plan: why is it established in the first place? What are the goals that need to be reached? And this plan also needs to contain information about practical things, such as: finances, the number of expected subsidies granted – all of this needs to be stated in a foundation document.

Commandment two: ensure maximum openness. Theoretically, the university is a proponent for openness, and everyone with the right background should get the chance to try to get a program subsidy. Exceptions need to be explicitly stated and explained. The background in this: more and more often, it seems as though this kind of program subsidy is only available to researchers who meet all sorts of requirements – who are already part of privileged groups. Bureaucratically speaking, this is an advantage, but it’ll be counterproductive in time, because in principle, the best ideas and proposals need to be able to compete with each other – and true innovation often comes from ‘outsiders’.

Commandment three: who’s in charge of the selection and how does the selection happen? This needs to be stated in the foundation plan, of course, but here too the point is: openness and free competition is important, so resist the temptation to place small groups of insiders in charge of everything.

Commandment four: a simple one: well before the deadline, a clear format (questionnaire) needs to be available in which is made clear exactly what information needs to be submitted.

Commandment five: an unambigious deadline and a clear time frame that applies to all parties.

Commandment six: all applicants are equal and all rules apply in the same way to everyone; in fact, this should go without saying, but I created the rule just to be sure.

Commandment seven: No changes in the procedure, the goals and the other rules of the game during the process itself. Again, this should go without saying.

Commandment eight: transparency in the way proposals are assessed and the results: assessments are made public, possibly including referents’ reports and other relevant information.

Commandment nine: an independent evaluation of the program and the assigned subsidies is standard practice, and these reports are made public.

Commandment ten: appeal is possible; it needs to be possible to put conflicts about any and all rules and procedures to an independent committee, which can make binding rulings.

The procedures of the national research organization NWO and the European ERC already broadly comply with these rules. It could be a good idea to introduce similar rules within the academic community.