Minister of Education answers questions about starting grants

Photo: Wikipedia

The Dutch government is going to invest more money in science. The Minister of Education, Robbert Dijkgraaf, has hundreds of millions of euros per year at his disposal, as well as 300 million euros to be used as "working capital" for scientists each year. This amount is going to be given to scientists in the form of starting grants and incentive grants that the universities can distribute themselves. The goal is to make scientists less dependent on the Dutch Research Council (NWO).

But the Dutch Parliament is still concerned. Will universities give more permanent contracts with these grants? Will academia become less competitive? Will the money go to people “who have already got themselves sorted”, in the words of the Green Left (GroenLinks) party?

150 million euros are going to be distributed each year in starting grants of 300,000 euros each. These grants are intended for university lecturers who will get a permanent contract. The other half will be used for "incentive grants" for lecturers, senior lecturers and professors, although the amounts may be smaller.

Will it help?
It all sounds good but will it actually help? The Young Academy, a group of relatively young researchers, isn't so sure, either. “Universities, departments and faculties need to find a way of allocating those extra funds”, the members write. “This means that competition, with the corresponding workload, is inevitable.”

Marcel Levi, chair of the Dutch Research Council, made a similar warning. “There is a danger that an entirely new bureaucratic circuit will be created at the universities, even though we already have a fantastic system to incentivise talent: NWO’s Veni, Vidi and Vici grants.”

Protest movement WOinActie is even more sceptical and suggests simply dividing the money between all the scientists, amounting to around 25,000 euros per scientist each year. Recipients could then decide what to do with it among themselves. For example, four people could pool their funding to take on a new university lecturer.

Even officials at the Ministry of Education acknowledge that the investments could result in more temporary contracts in academia if university lecturers were to use the starting grants to take on lecturers without research time. The minister could prevent that by imposing the right conditions.

Minister Dijkgraaf is aware of the objections and says he is glad that everyone else is looking at the situation critically too. “We will verify whether this capital really helps alleviate the problem of temporary contracts”, he told the Parliament. But he is not willing to make firm agreements.

At the same time, he refers to the many temporary appointments at universities as a “serious problem”. In his view, the issue is partly due to the imbalance between funding destined for research and funding destined for education, which he is trying to put right.

The grants are not the only way of ensuring permanent contracts, he added. There will also be extra money for sector plans, with national agreements about teaching and research in each discipline. That budget is rising from 70 to 200 million euros; permanent appointments will form part of it.

According to the minister, the sector plans are a “tried and tested instrument” and the grants can also contribute to permanent contracts and reduced workload. In any event, the ministry will monitor things.

Learning process
“I can promise that I will continue using the scientific method in my work”, Dijkgraaf stated, meaning he will keep an eye on what works and what doesn't. He says he also regards it as a learning process.

The House of Representatives was sympathetic and it looks unlikely that Dijkgraaf’s plans will meet any great political resistance, but he still has to work out those plans and there will doubtless be more debates on the matter. Then, it will emerge how strict the political supervision will be.