Young Utrecht scientists notice negative effects of new NWO policy

Illustratie: DUB

“Researchers who have invested greatly in their careers are now at the mercy of their departments. In some places, that causes great frustration.”

Neuroscientists Angela Sarabdjitsingh is vice-chairwoman  of the Utrecht Young Academy (UYA), a platform for young academics in Utrecht. A UYA workgroup heard several sad stories of UU researchers who would’ve liked to apply for the NWO’s so-called VIDI grants, but who felt forced to refrain from submitting their own research proposals for one of the government grants that NWO is responsible for. The deadline for submitting VIDI applications is this week.

In a letter (in Dutch ed.) to NWO chairman Stan Gielen, the UYA voiced their heavy objections against the new application conditions, which are said to have strongly unwanted implications.

'Scientific quality of the research proposal isn’t the most important thing anymore'

Earlier this year, NWO announced they will require an ‘embedding guarantee’ from candidates applying for a VIDI, the most important Dutch grant for young ambitious researchers who wish to start or expand on their own research tracks. For VIDI applicants, the requirements mean they’ll have to have their university offer them a permanent contract or a tenure track position (a five-year contract with the prospect of a permanent contract at the end of the five years). Until now, any researcher was free to submit their own proposals.

The measure was introduced by the NWO with the goal of lowering the ‘application pressure’ for Dutch scientists. All universities complain about the time and effort that go into writing proposals, whereas the chance of success is very small. This year, 86 researchers were awarded VIDI grants, while 485 scientists missed out – a success rate of one in seven, with significant differences between disciplines. NWO hopes money and means will be used more efficiently when universities can think about who they’re willing to take a chance on beforehand.

The UYA workgroup thinks the required job guarantee discourages talented, motivated researchers, while there are far-reaching negative consequences for the quality of science as a whole as well. Sarabdjitsingh says: “If you’ve got a permanent job already, there’s no problem. But others are having their chances taken away when a department doesn’t offer them perspective, be it for financial reasons, strategic reasons or content-related ones. In making those choices, scientific quality of the research proposal isn’t the most important thing anymore.”

Simultaneously the measure limits mobility, according to UYA. Before, they were able to ‘shop around’ with their grants, but universities probably won’t be too eager to offer permanent contracts to scientists from other universities.

'You’re basically locking up the academic job market'

The discontent of the Utrecht Young Academy is apparently widely shared within the university. The head of the UU’s Chemistry department, Bert Klein Gebbink, recently had to reject UU embedding guarantees to two researchers with VIDI potential.

“These two were rejected exclusively for financial reasons, and not based on quality or developmental potential. That hurts. The intent was to give universities more control of their human resources policies, but the reality is that the NWO influences it anyway. I feel pressured, and I have to estimate whether I can afford a permanent place for someone in five years, when the grant money is gone. Perhaps I’m being too careful, or not opportunistic enough, but to me, that’s a very long period of time to foresee.”

Research director Oscar Gelderblom of the department of History and Art History isn’t happy about the embedding guarantee either. “The reality is that we’re in the middle of cutbacks. That makes it practically impossible to offer people permanent contracts. With these measures, you’re basically locking up the academic job market.”

Gelderblom says his department hasn’t had to veto any applications. He can imagine there are scientists who decide not to submit their research proposals because they know there’s no place for them anyway, but the exact effects are hard to assess. “We don’t know what we don’t know.”

'It’s clear this lets down young, ambitious scientists'

It’s definitely hard to try and estimate the size of the issue within the university. At the Faculty of Social Sciences, for example, it’s said there aren’t many issues, because in the last few years, the faculty had invested heavily in new, permanent positions for young scientists.

Additionally, it’s only a relatively small number of applications per faculty every year. It’s unknown how many exactly, and it’s also unknown how many of the applicants hadn’t had a permanent position yet. In the past few years, the UU was awarded 7 (2016), 11 (2017), and 5 (2018) VIDI grants.

The Faculty of Science always has the highest number of applicants – around 18 a year. Vice dean Sjef Smeekens says there’ve been thorough discussions about the Vidi proposals submitted by temporary employees. Aside from Chemistry and Biology, where one person had to be disappointed, he says the discussions haven’t led to any rejections, as far as he knows.

Smeekens sees the downsides of the new system, too. “This definitely limits young researchers. It has great impact, and we regret this. In that sense, the Utrecht Young Academy has written a great letter.”

Still, Smeekens finds nuance. “Departments are now forced to make choices about where they want to go and what the consequences are at a very early stage. I’m convinced this happens with professionalism and integrity in Utrecht. But it’s clear this lets down young, ambitious scientists.”

'This is not good for diversity at universities'

Sarabdjitsingh says the researchers at Chemistry and Biology aren’t the only ones who were rejected by their departments. After a short inventory, the UYA has already found fiteen to twenty people who also faced rejection from their departments. But it’s hard to judge exactly how many people are in similar situations – not in the least because people don’t want to step forward. For that same reason, it wasn’t possible for DUB to speak with one of the duped researchers.

Sarabdjitsingh: “We’re especially afraid that only people with a great network and an outspoken researcher’s profile will get their chance. That’s not good for diversity at universities. Good candidates, who may have more experience with academic education, or a less common research proposal will withdraw. We’re already hearing things to that effect.”

'It's nothing more than moving the mess'

UYA has since found a listening ear in the UU’s new rector, Henk Kummeling. Together with the young academics, he wants to analyse the effects of the embedding measures in Utrecht. The analysis will look at whether the number of applications has actually decreased, but also at the reasons why.

Kummeling, too, is critical. He expects the NWO measures to be challenged and discussed. In an email, the rector says: “It’s basically nothing more than moving the mess. In a way, it’s a good thing it’s up to us more now. But as long as the incentives don’t change, and you can only build a career with individual achievements and individual projects, this doesn’t offer a solution at all. The only thing you’ve achieved is that the work of handling the applications moves from the NWO to the universities. And that you can look at where there’s money left. There’s a great risk that there won’t be a single Humanities proposal submitted anymore.”

Response NWO: ‘The human resources policies will be where they’re supposed to be: at the universities’

DUB submitted the UU’s findings to the NWO. Earlier the research financer sent this letter (in Dutch ed.) to UYA. Here the mail response DUB received:

The consequence of the embedding guarantee is that not just any researcher can submit a Vidi proposal. NWO is aware of this. This, however, is inevitable, if we want to do something about the pressure of processing the many applications, and if we want to prevent research from disappearing into nothing after all the investments and efforts if there’s no permanent position after the Vidi project ends.

With the embedding guarantee, the NWO wants to strengthen the continuity of scientific research. The human resources policies will be where they’re supposed to be: at the universities, who will choose which researchers should or shouldn’t put their efforts into submitting proposals. An important consideration is whether the project fits within the priority areas of the faculties and their facilities. This means a long-term assessment is made, which prevents a researcher from coming in temporarily only because he brings in external funds. It offers clarity and security. That’s in the best interest of the researchers, the institutions, and science as a whole.

As rector Kummeling says, it does require the focus to shift to the achievements of the team, and not just those of the individuals. That’s exactly what the embedding guarantee aims to achieve: looking at the scientific setting of where a study takes place, too. That’s why the NWO and universities need to work on these changes together, and that’s why NWO has had intensive discussions with the universities before deciding on these measures. How we’ve made this decision can be read in the NWO’s response to UYA and on our website