Dutch political parties have big plans for the research budget

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Researchers were already facing an uphill battle long before the pandemic started. The number of students enrolled in Dutch universities increases year after year, but the national research budget isn’t keeping up, making sky-high work pressure and unpaid overtime a daily reality for many lecturers and researchers. The fight for research funding is clearly out of control.

One way or another, something will have to change. It looks like the message has now finally gotten through to many politicians, because the election manifestos published for the upcoming parliamentary elections have come up with all kinds of plans to give research a boost.

More (fixed) funding
Parties: GroenLinks, D66, CU, PvdA, SGP, PvdD

For these parties, the best way to achieve real change is by having a bigger national budget for research. The protest group WOinActie, founded by three professors, has been fighting for years to increase the budget for academic teaching and research by at least one billion euros. Even the Minister of Education, Ingrid van Engelshoven, admits that the next government will have to put more money on the table.

Most of the parties mentioned above also want the newly-elected government to loosen the purse strings to provide permanent funding for universities. The reasoning is that, if institutions receive more funding, they will be able to offer their researchers more.

Notably absent from this list is the centre-right party VVD of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, which still leads in the polls by a long shot. Specific pledges to increase university research budgets are nowhere to be found in their election manifesto.

VVD thinks that university funding should not be linked to student numbers but rather to academic quality. This would lead to "fewer diploma mills and more funding for excellence in teaching and research". The party also advocates investing in research through the new National Growth Fund, for example in the field of artificial intelligence.

Pressure cooker
Parties: GroenLinks, PvdA, D66, PvdD

Research has confirmed time and again how heavy the workload of researchers and lecturers is. Workload pressure is so high among Dutch academics that it leads to all kinds of health problems, both psychological and physical. WOinActie took this issue to the labour inspectorate last year, alongside the unions.

Several parties have manifested their intent to do something about this issue. If it were up to green party GroenLinks, for example, all universities would receive structural resources to lower workload pressure. Centre-left party D66 and animal rights party Partij voor de Dieren also hope that a bigger budget would give overburdened researchers more time and space for their work. Labour Party PvdA wants to reduce the pressure to churn out papers ("publish or perish").

Cancel the race for research funding
Parties: GroenLinks, D66, CU, PvdA, SGP, PvdD

Many academic researchers have to compete for grants from funding bodies such as the Dutch Research Council (NWO) and the European Research Council (ERC). They have to spend a lot of time writing grant applications even though their chances of success are minimal.

GroenLinks would like to do away with this "excessive competition". If it were up to D66, they would also bring an end to the "futile application circus", which they would hope to achieve by increasing budgets and instituting "streamlined, more efficient application procedures".

The Christian parties ChristenUnie and SGP want to do something about low success rates. The SGP feels that there are too many research agendas and grant programmes in general. Applicants need "greater clarity".

Independent research
Parties: GroenLinks, SP, SGP, PvdD

Academic researchers are sometimes financially supported by private companies or non-profit organisations. The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) has warned in the past that this kind of external financing can lead to “undesirable levels of influence”.

That is why several parties emphasise the importance of independent research in their manifestos: private companies should not exert too much influence in how research funding is awarded, neither should they be involved in the results of academic research.

The socialist party (SP) would like to set up an independent fund that would allow private companies to requisition research projects while keeping an arm's length from the actual researchers. The PvdD wants to see "stricter requirements for independent research" when creating special chairs that are funded by private companies and foundations.

More permanent faculty
Parties: SP, D66

For unions and activists, the high percentage of temporary appointments at universities is a recurrent complaint. Many teachers and researchers have a termination date in their contracts. The Socialist Party thinks this has to change. D66 agrees, highlighting the situation of young researchers (postdocs).

Unfettered academic research
Parties: D66, CU, SGP, CDA

Academic research has lost its balance – that was the conclusion of a report by a KNAW committee led by Utrecht University professor Bert Weckhuysen last year. Currently, strategic and thematic research projects are soaking up the NWO budget, leaving little over for free and unfettered research arising from intellectual curiosity.

There ought to be enough funding available for the latter category too, a number of parties believe. The SGP writes that research "conducted freely and independently" deserves more attention.

The Christian democratic party CDA proposes giving young researchers and faculty members "their own work capital", which they would be free to spend on non-goal oriented research. This idea is also strongly reminiscent of the Weckhuysen committee study, which advocated the creation of a "rolling grant fund” that researchers would be able to access without having to compete with each other.

Wait and see
There's certainly a wealth of great proposals, but we have to wait and see what is left after the new cabinet formation -- and then there's still the question of where the hundreds of millions of euros for all these ideas will come from. Should the Netherlands raise its taxes? Increase tuition fees? We’re all sitting on the edge of our seats.