‘Let scientists themselves explain why they deserve grants’

Photo: Jeroen Abeling and De Beeldunie

For half of each week, Jeroen Geurts (1978) walks around the VU University Amsterdam (VU) in his white lab coat. As head of the department of anatomy and neurosciences, he guides students, PhD candidates, and professors. On the other days, he can be found all suited up in The Hague, at research financers NWO and ZonMw. He’s a member of the board at the former, and chairman of the board at the latter. In The Hague, he joins universities and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) in thinking about new ways of recognising and assessing scientists.

The first step has already been taken. Recently, NWO, ZonMw and the KNAW signed the so-called DORA declaration: a global initiative with the aim of making assessments of research focus more on the intrinsic quality of said research instead of the researcher’s citation score or the journal they publish in. They’d already announced this goal in a position paper about the topic late last year.

Publication score, h-index, impact factor, experience abroad. Get rid of these ‘checklists’, says Geurts. They don’t always measure the right things. If it’s up to him, research financers will become much more of a ‘sparring partner’ that’s curious about scientists’ stories: who are they working with, and what is the value of their research for society? “Let them explain why they’re good researchers; you can recognise quality without these checklists.”

What’s wrong with these checks?
“We’ve started to behave in a way to fulfil them. People will quickly go abroad for a while, or publish that final piece without involvement of their previous supervisor. Why? All types of things that may once have fit our idea of what a researcher is, have now become rigid instruments of assessment. Researchers aren’t a uniform group; you can’t make them all jump through the same hoops. And yet, at the moment, these checklists are the determining factor for our careers.

“Former minister of education, Ronald Plasterk, fought hard for competition in 2007, by transferring 100 million euros from the institutions to the NWO. Competition will yield the highest quality, was the idea. There’s a kernel of truth in that, but we’ve gone too far now. The competition is killing, and the burnout numbers are no joke.”

But the number of grants is limited. You’ll still have to select somehow.
“The complexity of the issues anno 2019 – think of climate problems, vaccination strategies – demand more collaboration throughout the disciplines. We’re competing each other like crazy for a small part of the funds, but we should come together, from different disciplines, to tackle bigger issues. That’s my personal vision. As brain researcher, I see networks in everything, as well as how they could be integrated.

“My ideal is that researchers work together in a multidisciplinary team that’s centred around a single research question, for instance: how do we get microplastics out of our environment? As financer, I then want to know the composition of the project group. What about the diversity, the position of young people? How are they taking care of follow-up subsidies? What will be done in case of unexpected results? I want to be a sparring partner who helps scientists build sustainable networks.”

So scientists should become better team players?
“In science, we create science divas. We’re impressed with the results of one man or one woman. I wonder, then: wouldn’t it be a lot more future-proof to lift the entire team to a higher level? I would love it if we were to give the Spinoza award to teams in the future.”

The societal impact will also play a role in the assessment. How do you see this happening?
“That’s already being done. The fundamental lab findings of a medical researcher have to end up in the treatment guidelines as quickly as possible. With mathematicians of philosophers, that transfer to practice is often less obvious.

“But I want to hear their stories, too. If someone contends convincingly and honestly that his research amplifies the culture or knowledge, then that’s quality in his discipline. But if he really can’t explain why he’s doing research, I wonder: why are you doing it then?”

Does a medical professional who has a positive influence on society have an advantage over a philosopher whose research you can’t immediately apply to anything?

“Not at all! In fact, we want to assess in a more tailored way. Find out together what impact means in specific research disciplines. Perhaps I’m too much of an idealist, but I like to dream big.”

Do you think scientists should be assessed for their teaching more?
“The money flows for research and education are separate, of course, and as financer I’m only in charge of research. But I can imagine that we’d assess someone who does less research but focuses a lot on innovative education, differently. In my own department at the VU, I distinguish between people who want a career in education and those who want a career in research. I think you shouldn’t have to be able to do everything. We currently expect everyone to do education and research and management and valorisation at the same time – preferably at the highest possible level. No wonder everyone’s so burned out.”

What do you tell young scientists who don’t know how they’ll be assessed? They’re already worried about the open access plans, because the assessment criteria will change during their research projects.
“Open access was indeed met with some resistance. But it will be the norm. Science shouldn’t be hidden behind a paywall. The greengrocer who wonders whether he should let his kids get vaccinated should also be able to view research results. If you request a grant in a few years’ time and you don’t want to publish open access, you won’t get the grant. That’ll take some getting used to.

“We’re going to slowly implement the new way of assessing and recognising. In the transition phase, we have to take good care of the generation that’s now getting ready to start their academic careers. They’ll have to deal with the old and the new system simultaneously. But it might also get tricky for experienced researchers, because they’ve built their careers according to the old rulebooks.”

And what if scientists don’t share your vision?
“I’m just a manager, I take care of my constituency. If Dutch scientists don’t support this in the end, I’ll yield. But the want for more air in this remorseless world of research has only grown in the past few years, so I expect we’re heading towards an interesting discussion.”

During the ‘Evolution or revolution’ conference on May 23, ZonMw and NWO will converse with scientists about new ways of assessing and recognising.

Who is Jeroen Geurts?

Geurts studied neurobiology at the University of Amsterdam, and received his cum laude PhD at the VU University for his research on multiple sclerosis. He’s professor of translational neurosciences and head of the department of anatomy and neurosciences at the VU medical centre.

2010 - current: Director ‘Brein in beeld’ foundation
2012: study for philosophical practicioner
2013 - 2015: Chairman of The Young Academy, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences
2016 - current: columnist for science section of newspaper NRC
2017 - current chairman of the board of ZonMw and member of the executive board of NWO