KNAW: Give researchers working capital of half a billion euros

UU-hoogleraar Bert van Weckhuysen overhandigde eind januari zijn rapport aan minister Ingrid van Engelshoven. Foto: Twitter / Wim van Saarloos

Every year, the Dutch Research Council (NWO) awards hundreds of millions of euros in research funding. But, to be eligible, researchers end up spending a lot of precious time writing grant applications. More often than not this also turns out to be a waste of effort, as the chances of success are slim.

Jumping through hoops
A KNAW committee under the supervision of Spinoza Prize winner Professor Bert Weckhuysen believes a change is in order. He argues that Dutch academia has become fragmented as a result of the endless number of hoops that researchers need to jump through to get from project grant to project grant. “There is a lack of continuity”, the committee members write in a new advisory report.

They propose giving all university lecturers, associate professors and professors with a permanent appointment at a university or a university medical centre (UMC) their own working capital. This way they won’t have to keep knocking on the Dutch Research Council’s door.

The idea is to set up a rolling grant fund. Weckhuysen already proposed this idea in an interview with HOP earlier this year. The fund would finance grants suitable for various stages in a researcher’s career.

This would include setting up starter modules for university lecturers (250,000 euros), associate professors (375,000 euros) and professors (500,000 euros) in the first phase of their careers. Experienced professors who obtained their PhD more than fifteen years ago (and therefore are no longer eligible for a Dutch Research Council Vici grant) would be able to apply for funding from the follow-up modules (250,000 euros).

The money would be divided as follows: the Minister provides an “earmarked budget” to universities and UMCs. These institutions will then have the freedom to determine who gets which grant and when. According to the committee, the new system uses the existing promotion procedures and assessment systems in place at universities and UMCs, and would also prevent additional paperwork.

New cash injection
Researchers who receive a rolling grant would have the freedom to decide how to use it, as long as their plan are related to their line of research. Examples include hiring a PhD student or a technical specialist, or purchasing a specific piece of equipment. The fund is intended for scientists with a permanent appointment of at least 80 percent who combine research and teaching activities.

Now, the burning question: what would this all cost? The committee members estimate that the final price tag would be a little over half a billion euros. This means that new funds need to be made available, as emphasised in their report: “by shifting existing funds, the introduction of this new rolling grants fund would create or exacerbate problems elsewhere in the research system.” Finally, they stress that the new fund is by no means intended to be a replacement for the Dutch Research Council’s grants.