Scientists will soon be suspended for weak NWO grant applications

Pieter Duisenberg, chairman of the VSNU, on a visit to the UU in 2018. Photo: DUB

This plan was presented in a letter sent by university association VSNU and research financer NWO to Minister Van Engelshoven of Education last week. It’s one of the ideas that are introduced to limit the high number of requests for research grants.

The idea for a ‘restriction’ for weaker grant requests was borrowed from the European research council, ERC. The ERC already has a system in which scientists aren’t allowed to participate in a next round if they’ve been rejected for presenting a subpar grant request.

Another measure presented by the authors of the letter is abolishing deadlines for grant requests to the NWO. That way, researchers won’t present their plans until they’re really good enough, and they won’t be as hasty submitting their requests.

Aside from this, universities are also considering making their own pre-selection, which should reduce the enormous piles of research proposals sent to NWO. In fact, universities and the NWO are considering working with quotas: certain NWO programmes would then work with a maximum number of grant requests.

The latter idea still needs some further development. The danger of the plan, they realise, is that the work currently done by the NWO would then simply shift to the universities. In practice, that would change nothing, and scientists wouldn’t feel any less pressure either.

Things will also change in the assessment of scientists, which will become more ‘narrative’. In other words: the research financer aims to put less emphasis on the number of publications and the prestige of the journals the articles were published in. Instead, scientists will have to present a top-10 of their own publications, for instance, and explain why these publications are valuable. That should then offer equal opportunities to people “following a dynamic career path”, according to the universities and the NWO.

At the same time, the universities wish to ensure that obtaining NWO funds isn’t the only way a scientist can further their career. They want to exempt young scientists from requesting research funds more often, so they’ll have more time to spend on their own development. Universities do have one caveat: the money does have to be available.

They also want to put more emphasis on other career paths at university, for instance in education or innovation. They’ve already announced this in their plans for the changes in ‘recognising and assessing’ their employees.

The authors of the letter warn the minister that some sticking points can only be solved with more money. The financing of universities should also become more stable.