Dutch Research Council gauges opinions on talent grants

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The Dutch Research Council (NWO plans to overhaul its talent programme with the Veni, Vidi and Vici grants, according to a leaked memorandum. Some young scientists are worried.

Read in Dutch

The talent programme and its popular research grants exist since 2008, so the NWO believes it is time for reflection. The organisation has written a memorandum about it and is now gauging the opinions of researchers, administrators and the ministry of education, culture and science.

Considering how many people they approached, it was practically inevitable that a leak would occur. That happened on the news site ScienceGuide, where a day later a group of 95 young scientists, mostly in the medical field, expressed their concern (links are in Dutch).

In their view, tinkering with the talent programme would put the future of science in the Netherlands at risk as the good position the Netherlands occupies in the science world is due partly to the Veni, Vidi and Vici grants.

Rush
NWO’s memorandum outlines the problems with the current system. The grants have become so important for researchers’ careers that there is a rush to get hold of them.

“The big rise in the number of potential applicants is out of proportion with the grant options available under the NWO talent programme, which have remained the same for many years”, says the memorandum. “The system of allocating research budget in competition is becoming increasingly expensive and time-consuming.”

The grants should therefore become less important for individuals’ careers. Research institutions should look after the careers of researchers, not the NWO. In addition, there are European grants which partially overlap the Dutch talent programme.

If NWO goes ahead with its plan, scientists will have to appeal to European programmes when their career is already in full swing, while there will be more room at NWO for postdocs on a temporary contract.

Recognition and rewards
Another current discussion complicates matters even further. How should researchers be appraised? The trend in the Dutch scientific community is to ‘recognise and reward’ other types of talent instead of just research. Education, leadership and outreach are key factors as well. NWO has committed itself to the corresponding cultural change.

The presumed benefit is that scientists would then be less dependent on research grants. But this could succeed only if the universities and other research institutions have enough funding, in other words through extra government investments.

By reason of ‘recognition and reward’ NWO places less emphasis on output such as publications in prestigious journals. It would rather appraise researchers on the basis of a ‘narrative CV’. That is the wrong direction, in the opinion of the 95 researchers, who talk of an “essay competition”. NWO should focus on research, they believe, and not on other types of talent. “Yes, there are good researchers and less good researchers. Yes, this is reflected partially in measurable, internationally accepted output indicators.”

Online
In the meantime, NWO has published the memorandum online, because ScienceGuide supposedly summarised it poorly. The research funding organisation also stresses that no decisions have yet been made. They merely want to know what others think about topics such as researchers’ CVs, the role of NWO in talent policy and the relationship between the talent programme and European research programmes. “These are open questions as far as NWO is concerned.”

Young scientists are not the only ones with doubts over the new recognition and rewards system. On Monday, top researcher Hans Clevers, former president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, warned of the “disastrous consequences” the new system could have.

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