Cortege with board members Anton Pijpers, Henk Kummeling, and Annetje Ottow. Photo: Robert Oosterbroek.

Pijpers at start academic year: ‘Am I still allowed to be #proud of UU’s high ranking?’

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The assessment of researchers needs to focus less on publications and citations, and more on their team work and the impact of their research. To that end, the UU has signed an international agreement called Dora, the president of the executive board stated during the start of the academic year.

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The usual themes were addressed during the ceremony in the Dom Church. The UU wants to use science to make the world a better place. The workloads of employees are too high, and that needs to be fixed. The minister should not involve herself in the redistribution of funds in which scientific programmes would receive more money than humanities and social sciences.

Rector Henk Kummeling was clear in his opening speech. Utrecht will not use the government’s additional funds to invest in ‘hard’ sciences if the funds come at the expense of Humanities and Social Sciences. This statement was greeted with some hesitant applause, as was his statement that the Executive Board supports the protests of protest group WOinActie. At that moment, WOinActie was holding an alternative start of the academic year in Leiden, called ‘The True Start’ (De Ware Opening in Dutch).

The speeches in the Dom church focused more on research than on education, and especially the assessment of said research. “We assess research too much by focusing on individual achievements. You need to score in journals, and you need to be cited often, or you’re not important enough.” The message was clear: this needs to change.

Too many research applications
Stan Gielen, president of the board of research financer NWO, told the universities that too much weight is put on research applications. The idea among many is that you don’t count unless you’ve managed to snag an NWO research grant. No wonder the NWO has to let so many scientists down – as happened with the applicants for the National Science Agenda funds. The organisation had 54 million euros available, around 5 million per university, he said. Some universities sent in so many applications they totalled 100 million euros, 20 times more than what was available. Gielen’s solution focused mainly on those universities. The current assessment system at universities means researchers are more or less forced to try and obtain as many grants as possible. If universities were to assess scientists on other aspects, that would lead to fewer applications for grants as well.

Belle Derks, psychologist in Utrecht and president of the Young Academy, says that at the core, scientists would rather be team players than competitive individualists. She’d studied the subject among 4,000 scientists. She calls for people to be assessed not only on their research achievements, but also on things like education, impact, and leadership. She also advised Gielen to study the NWO's own criteria in assessing research applications.

Derks received support from board member Annetje Ottow. She wants the university to pay more attention to its employees’ unique talents. This could be done by putting the teams at the heart of things, and by organising leadership programmes. That would then ensure the UU staff could grow into beautiful butterflies who each have their own colour and talent.

Sympathy for critics
In the end, it was president Anton Pijpers who painted the sharpest picture of the dilemma. On the one hand, you want to renew things, but on the other hand, you’re stuck in the existing system. He admitted to his own sins. In the recent Shanghai ranking, the UU was the highest-ranked Dutch university. He had twittered the news with the comment #proud. “That did not go over well,”  the president admitted. He then wondered whether he was no longer allowed to be proud of the UU’s results.

He also felt sympathetic to the critics. “The Shanghai ranking is mostly based on publications and citations, and is therefore the ultimate expression of a system that’s characterised by individualism gone too far and the pressure to perform.”

Tradition and modernisation
Despite his show of sympathy, he also wants to be able to be proud. To do so, the university has to move into new directions. To that end, he announced that the UU will sign the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment. This statement – usually called Dora – provides alternatives for assessing researchers, in which the impact of the research is more important than publications. The VSNU had already signed this declaration on behalf of all universities in 2014, but the UU wishes to strengthen its commitment by signing it by itself.

After this, the programme continued on to the award ceremony for the best Master’s Thesis award and the award for exceptional extracurricular achievements. As is tradition, the ceremony ended with singing the Gaudeamus song, and drinks – but not before the rector had issued a call to send in suggestions for a new university song. It shows the struggle between tradition and modernisation the university faces in the next few years. To what extent will it be possible to realise those resolutions?

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