UU Professor Bert Weckhuysen:

‘Starting and incentive grants don’t need to be divisive’

Professor Bert Weckhuysen

Last year, the Minister of Education, Robbert Dijgraaf, earmarked 300 million euros for the so-called "starting" and "incentive" grants, which he hoped would bring some calm and space to academia. All assistant professors admitted on a fixed contract would get a "starting grant" of 300,000 euros, while the remaining scholars would get "incentive" grants of varying amounts. 

It didn't take long for the scheme to be criticised. The Young Academy, a group of prominent scientists of a relatively young age, and WOinActie, a protest group fighting work overload in academia, both observed that the grants would do nothing to reduce the workload. On the contrary: in their view, all these grants do is intensify the battle for funding. Universities weren’t thrilled about them, either: they wondered why they were not allowed to award the grants to groups instead of individuals.

To address all the critiques, the minister formed a committee comprised of a number of administrators and some of his worst critics, who were asked to comment on the distribution of the grants. However, the group took longer than expected to come up with a position, which raised questions regarding their ability to reach an agreement. But things worked out in the end.

Remco Breuker, a Professor at Leiden University and a WOinActie representative, wrote on Twitter that working in the committee was “complex and challenging, both due to the topic being thorny and the abundance of perspectives within the committee. But we've been able to turn this abundance to our advantage thanks to our chair, who did a phenomenal job listening and analysing. I’ve grown allergic to leadership but this is a kind of leadership I could get behind.”

The chair in question was Bert Weckhuysen, a Professor in Catalysis, Energy and Sustainability at Utrecht University. Prior to chairing the committee, he wrote a recommendation on the "rolling grants" for the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. The starting and incentive grants are based on the rolling grants.

Are you happy about the starting and incentive grants created by the minister?
“You’re not the first person to ask. Look, we had a different budget in mind for the rolling grants: about twice as much as the 300 million available now. Not that 300 million isn’t a considerable sum of money, it just means that things work differently.”

The committee's recommendation has been published but the distribution is already going on. Don't you think it's too late?
“The Cabinet wanted to distribute the money as quickly as possible. But then the question arose: how are we actually going to do that? That’s why our committee was set up. After all, it is a completely new instrument. We’re familiar with the sector plans and funding via the Dutch Research Council (NWO) but the dynamics here are different.”

Your committee missed the first deadline and then asked for a three-month extension. Why?
“We needed that extension to be a good committee. First, we talked a lot without drawing any conclusions. As a chair, I was looking to prevent members from thinking that they needed to impose their opinions right away. They were all given a chance to say what drives them and what they believe in. We really listened to each other in order to make the best collective choices.”

What were your points of departure?
“We prioritised independent research and reducing the workload. If you make your choices based on content – what kind of research gets a grant and what kind doesn’t – universities will have tiny little Dutch Research Councils, and we don’t want that. We wanted to create as few new structures and distribution systems as possible. There’s already a faculty board and a university council, so let things run through them. The lower the employee is in the hierarchy, the better their insight into the workload.”

You’re also calling for a strict separation between starting and incentive grants. What do you mean?
“Most universities aren’t receiving enough money to award a starting grant to each assistant professor they hire. Some universities used the incentive grant budget to bridge the deficit. Although we understand this, it’s not good to undermine the incentive grants. One shouldn’t mix the amounts allocated to the starting and incentive grants. If you do, you’re not giving the system a chance to come to fruition. Let's pay full attention to both grants.”

Younger universities are getting a relatively large share of the pie than the rest. That is the minister’s way of compensating for the fact that young universities receive less base funding than older universities. But isn’t that a strange amalgamation of policy goals?
“That’s well put but we’re not saying anything about that. That would be something for the association of Dutch universities, Universities of The Netherlands (UNL), and the ministry to talk about. However, it does lead to a dynamic that varies from university to university. Some have more starting and incentive grants to give out than others, which may be a nuisance but it could also serve as a motivation for older universities to re-evaluate the distribution of their research funding.”

Some get a grant, some don’t... Will the distribution lead to envy on the work floor?
“That’s exactly why we’ve asked the minister to allocate more money for the transition. We wrote that that would be a ‘great signal’.”

Even so, the grants may be divisive.
“I think it’ll be fine if it’s really about reducing workload and free-to-spend funds. In general, people know which colleagues are doing a lot of work and could really use such a grant. And then you may be eligible for an incentive grant later. That’s how the system should work. One thing we should really avoid is people having to write proposals to be eligible for a starting or incentive grant, or being obligated to hire a PhD candidate, for instance.”

Speaking of proposals, one of the grants' aims is to reduce the number of applications submitted to NWO. Nonetheless, if it were up to your committee, researchers on a starting grant would still be able to apply to NWO as well.
“Yes, because starting and incentive grants fall under the direct government funding for universities. In principle, that should be seen as separate from indirect funding (through an NWO competition, for example, Ed.). Mixing them up would make things very unclear, in our view.”

But suppose you have two assistant professors and only one of them is given a grant – and, by extension, more time for research. That means the first one will have more time for an NWO application as well, which would widen the gap between them even more.
“That might happen in some cases, but where should we draw the line? The sector plans are also bringing in money. Should we then say that whoever’s getting money from the sector plans can no longer apply to NWO? This is why we would be in favour of giving a starter kit to every researcher hired – some funding to spend as they see fit, from any source, so their academic career gets off to a good start."

You also point out that most universities factor in overhead costs of twenty percent, which comes down to 60,000 euros for a 300,000-euro grant. You practically have to hire a full-time employee for that one grant.
“And we do have an opinion on that. We thought about naming an actual amount. But we didn’t want to interfere in the boards' affairs.”

So you can’t say anything about the realistic costs of distributing the grants?
“You could ask what the actual costs are yourself. In any case, the current explanation doesn’t warrant an overhead of twenty percent. Having said that, we wouldn’t want to suggest that it’s a piece of cake and that there aren’t any indirect costs.”

Is there no way for them to give the whole grant to the researcher?
“We thought about whether the overhead should be zero percent but a university does need to think about how to structure things. We understand if this involves some overhead. However, it shouldn’t require them to set up a huge department. And, if you really can’t figure it out, why not use a lottery system to distribute the grants? With all due respect, surely a system like that wouldn’t be too expensive.”

Was Dijkgraaf using his political savvy when he brought such a varied bunch of administrators and activists together in a single committee? He cornered all of his critics in one fell swoop.
“Let’s just say one shouldn’t underestimate Dijkgraaf. He’s a sensible man and this wasn’t a bad move on his part. Then again, it could have backfired if we had failed to reach an agreement.”

That would have allowed him to say: "people in the field weren't able to work things out, so I’ll make the decision.'"
“That’s a good analysis, but we did reach an agreement in the end. And I just want to stress, for the record, that it is a unanimous recommendation.”