NWO chair Marcel Levi: 'Universities don’t like it when I say this, but…'

Photos: NWO

A medical doctor and a scientist, Marcel Levi is sometimes asked what he gets out of working for the Dutch Research Council. He has been at the helm of the organisation for a year now. Wouldn’t he prefer working in a hospital or university?

To Levi, people asking that question don’t understand how interesting it is to lead an organisation disbursing nearly a billion euros in research funding each year. “I have a fair knowledge of the academic world, but now I go to places I have never been before. Research in the field of social sciences and technology, for example, is new to me. In those disciplines, the thought process is different, it’s a different culture.”

What are those differences?
“How can I say this diplomatically? STEM researchers are proud people. They believe, rightly or wrongly, that they are among the best in the world and they want people to know it. The conversations you have with social scientists are entirely different. They say 'we have to teach too much already and it’s only getting worse, nobody loves us, there’s not enough money'…”

Researchers sometimes feel that NWO tends to lean towards STEM.
“At NWO we take those differences into account. Considering the scale of the open competition and available grants, we disburse roughly as much on STEM as on research in the humanities. But the latter disciplines are a lot bigger. It’s a tricky issue: in what respect are they actually bigger? In terms of the number of students and scientists or the importance of the research itself? We’re bad at that sort of discussion in the Netherlands. The allocation of funding is based to a large extent on what has happened in the past and every attempt to change things stumbles on arguments whose main intention is to defend established positions. I don’t know whether this will ever change. When it comes to the allocation of funds, there is always going to be people thinking 'this criterion doesn’t suit me, so I’m against it.'”

Social scientists say: 'nobody loves us'

Prior to serving at NWO, you managed the teaching hospitals of University College London. Were things any different in England?
“Oh God, no. On one occasion, we discussed a new allocation model, but the discussion was never about the model itself, only about the results. But, in the Netherlands, we aim for consensus: things only go ahead if everyone is in favour. In England, it’s the government that has the biggest say.”

Is it unwieldy, the way we do things here?
“I actually enjoy differences in opinion because we can learn from one another. NWO is a bridge-builder. We never serve our own interests: all the money that comes in we pass on to others. But we have a lot of knowledge, which we use to bring parties together. For instance, in cooperation with others, we have battled to get the government to invest more money in science, which has been hugely successful.”

Is there enough money available?
“Yes, I think so. For the next ten years, at least. And even if we doubled the current amount, I’m not sure if that would be worthwhile. Say that you suddenly gave the universities an extra 80 million. I don’t think they could spend it straight away. You need a plan and talented people.”

Extra geld krijgen we niet voor de werkdruk

Will the money help to ease the workload?
“A little bit, perhaps. I’m certain that the workload in the academic field is high, but that isn’t the best possible argument for spending money on it. Everyone has a high workload, including nurses and police officers. We don’t get the money because of the workload, but rather to stimulate knowledge and innovation as these things are really important if we want to make the Netherlands move forward.”

NWO sometimes gets the blame for the heavy workload. Everyone is working overtime to write grant applications, but the vast majority of applicants do not get a grant.
“Workload is a catch-all term. It has more to do with the ridiculous administration of outdated IT systems than with the number of hours worked. Or it’s about tasks that you simply don’t enjoy. You think: 'Great, I’ll work at a university, I’ll do a bit of research and teaching. Then, out of the blue, you  find yourself having to read through 300 theses in a weekend and write an application for research funding'”

But the stampede for NWO funding means that many researchers write their applications for nothing.
“Yes, sometimes we can accept only 10 percent of the applications, which isn’t effective, of course. It’s a huge waste of researchers’ valuable time. But surely we aren’t the only ones to blame? You can do two things: get hold of more money or submit fewer applications. There’s no other way round it.”

And now there is more money coming in from the government, indeed.
“Which is great, but watch out: if most of that money goes to universities, they will take on young people, who will probably think: 'you know what? I’m going to apply to the Dutch Research Council'. So we will get even more applications. That’s why the funding given to the universities needs to be in balance with the funding given to NWO — otherwise, the problems won’t go away.”

Or the government gives NWO less money so that researchers no longer apply to the agency for funding.
“But NWO exists for a reason. We allocate money on the basis of quality and excellence. We also fund initiatives that are hard to implement by a single university. NWO works, and that’s something to treasure. But it's true: we would prefer to accept 20 to 25 percent of all the applications we receive. That would only be possible with extra money.”

Or with fewer applications. Who could make sure that happens?
“We’re not going to seal up our letterbox. The universities ought to submit only the best research to NWO. That is definitely their intention but it rarely happens. They often don’t know what’s going on. Sometimes we point out to a vice-chancellor that the university is sending in a lot of applications. The usual answer is 'Oh, I don't know anything about that'”

This is not how we had designed it. The basics have gotten out of control

What is the root of the problem, in your view?
“The people working at universities have a huge teaching load and very little time for research. So, NWO is their only option. That isn’t how we designed it. The basics have gotten out of control, one of the reasons being a large number of students". 

To get the basics right, universities would like to use the extra money to introduce ‘rolling grants’, a sort of working capital for researchers. The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences thinks that’s a good idea but you are sceptical about it.
“Not really, I can understand why. I have certainly been critical — after all, science is getting that extra money because it’s supposedly good for society and the economy, so we have to live up to that. Otherwise, one day the Court of Audit will issue a report saying that nothing has come of it.”

But the universities are not giving the money to spongers, are they?
“The danger is that these rolling grants are going to generate an entirely new bureaucratic circuit, even though we already have a fantastic system to stimulate new talent: NWO’s Veni, Vidi and Vici grants. We could put money into those three grants and then allocate it on the basis of excellence. The universities don’t like it when I say it, but why shouldn’t we do this? The money still goes to them, it’s just that they have a little less control over it.”

Some scientists have doubts whether NWO is able to make a meaningful distinction between one good proposal and another. They are in favour of rewarding the very best proposals, filtering out the worst ones and drawing lots for the rest of the grants.
“That stuff about drawing lots… That argument usually comes from people who don’t get grants themselves.”

It also comes from members of The Young Academy.
“Well, it's easy for them to say because, in general, they are already firmly in the saddle. They would never say 'I’ll give my Vidi grant back, just raffle it off'. Anyway, everyone is entitled to their opinion.”

Drawing lots? That's the easy way out

Surely you can’t dismiss such criticism as ‘talk’s cheap’ and ‘sour grapes’?
“Making a selection in the middle segment is harder than at the top and the bottom, that’s true. But you have to separate the wheat from the chaff: is this proposal above or below average? That’s our job, that’s what we’re there for. If our method is wrong, then we have to improve it, but drawing lots would be the easy way out.”

Why is it so hard to discuss this? This has been a taboo topic at NWO for many years.
“We would be making a contribution to scientific research by drawing lots, but so far there’s no indication that such a system works better than making a distinction. It isn’t our own money, by the way, it’s taxpayers' money. Up until now, I haven’t seen many signals that society is ready for raffling off tax revenue. Just imagine if they were to do that with tricky court cases! I’ve never heard a judge say 'we have drawn lots, you will have to go to prison for ten years'”

Critics say that, in practice, it is already a lottery.
“All the decisions we take are reasoned, so it isn’t a lottery. Maybe in a few years’ time, we will discover that we are actually not able to make a good distinction, but I can’t see that happening anytime soon.”

NWO grants are rather important for scientists’ careers. Too important, according to some. They feel that they ought to be able to forge a career in another way.
“Universities need to strike the right balance between teaching, science, leadership and social merit. They call it recognition and rewards. But NWO looks only at science. The real question is how we do it. We used to take mainly publications and citations into account. That was nice and easy, you could link all your figures to it, but it was too one-sided.”

What was wrong with it?
“You are then in a situation where people divide their publications into three parts so as to make the list longer. And let’s suppose that a hundred of your colleagues cite your article, what does that actually say? Maybe they all say that it’s worthless. So we have to look for something more sensible. As far as I’m concerned, you don’t have to say that you’re good at patient care or at implementing research results, because that’s not our concern, but…”

But you still ask about the potential applications?
“A little. Whether it could result in a patent, for instance. But for me, it’s not so interesting to know that someone has started their own business. Needless to say, you can always involve knowledge utilisation in science, just like the aspiration for open science. Let’s say that you publish something in a magazine like Nature — that’s great, but are you aware that almost nobody can read it because it’s behind a paywall? And then what can you do with it?”

The idea that 'Recognition and Rewards' harms science is a misconception

Some top scientists, such as former President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences Hans Clevers, fear that ‘recognition and rewards’ will harm the position of the Netherlands in the scientific world.
“But that’s a misconception. That discussion is going on in other countries too. It’s an illusion that we’re leading this trend. In countries like the UK and Norway, academics are no longer judged on the impact factor of their articles alone.”

“I’m not saying that NWO gets everything right. For a while, we asked researchers to send in a ‘narrative CV’, in which you don’t use lists and figures, and not all of us were happy with that. We got criticism from our own selection committees: a CV like that is hard to verify, they can say whatever they fancy. So we’re moving over to an evidence-based CV. You can still say how good you are, but it has to be objectifiable. If you’re at the top of your field of expertise, you’re sure to have been invited at some stage to give a lecture at a major congress. And if you’re especially good at outreach, where can we find evidence of it?”

So we're back again to the argument that measuring is everything?
“Measuring is good, of course. What we did in the past was measure only one thing. What we want to achieve is measuring ten things.”

Isn’t that the perspective of medical scientists? They can always illustrate what they are good at.
“Yes, a lot of the grumbles come from medical science. They can say that they are working on a cure for a particular form of cancer and then it sounds interesting. Mediaeval theatre can be awesome, but how is it relevant to society? What will the research achieve? Some researchers might regard the question as insulting, but isn’t it reasonable for the taxpayer to ask 'what's in it for me?' The answer ‘shut your mouth, give me the money and don’t interfere’ is inappropriate in this day and age. Every now and then, we come across a fossil that says something like that, but nowadays it’s very rare.”

The Dutch Research Council is coming up with a new strategy. What can we expect?
“It will be quite an ambitious document. We set out our plans as a funding provider and as a bridge-builder in the world of research, as well as a provider of top-quality research via our institutions. And we will definitely not take our foot off the gas in our open science policy. Of course, we also consider how we can make it easier to apply for a grant, making it less time-consuming. Currently, researchers have to jump through all kinds of hoops and answer questions on issues such as their institution’s diversity policy. It would be better if we talked to the institution itself about that. And some of the questions need to be asked only of people who actually get the grant. What we do consider important is that they write a communication plan – and we set requirements for that – but in fact, it doesn’t matter in terms of evaluating the research proposal.”

The fact that sometimes only 10 percent of applicants get accepted "makes the system too brutal"

The simpler you make the application process, the more researchers will apply for a grant and then the chance of success is further reduced.
“But making it extra hard doesn't help it either. In an ideal world, you wouldn’t be able to simply send in an application. The universities would have to make a preselection, but as I said before, that is not going to happen. Sometimes their policy literally states that you have to get a grant from the Dutch Research Council if you want to make a career for yourself. No wonder that researchers do everything they can to get one. It makes the system too brutal, with acceptance percentages of as little as 10 percent. The opposite ought to be the case: you’re allowed to apply for a grant only if you have reached a certain grade. And it ought not to be a personal disqualification if on one occasion you fail to get a grant.”

What will happen in the years ahead in terms of how much funding is allocated to frontier research compared to the amount allocated to thematic research?
“We will be looking for a balance. You sometimes hear the criticism that there’s no money left for frontier research, but there’s just as much money as a few years ago. There are more applicants, however.”

But how do you want to make the allocation?
“We want fewer small programmes, not ‘a little money here and there’. We also want our programmes to be more in line with European grants. Are there any evident blank spots or is there an overlap? We now have a lot of Vidi grant recipients who also get a European consolidator grant a week later. Is that what we want? You could ask them to give back the Vidi grant. That would show solidarity with researchers who have missed out on a grant. In any case, we want to get that debate going.”

HOP, Bas Belleman