You cannot lighten the workload with a new competition

29-06-2022

The Young Academy comments on the policy letter on higher education and research.

In Dutch

The Young Academy is looking forward to a period of calm and stability in the Dutch science system. That is precisely what is prioritised in the policy letter on higher education and research (ref: 33080266, 17 June 2022) in which Minister of Education, Culture and Science Robbert Dijkgraaf announces large-scale investments. We are relieved, delighted and grateful for this impetus. It is a solid step towards ‘necessary and overdue investments’, as the minister himself puts it.

The Young Academy regards the minister’s problem analysis as lucid and outstanding: there are currently too few opportunities for basic research, the workload is too heavy and social safety is under threat. Several instruments mentioned in the policy letter appear to offer appropriate means of resolving the problems identified. For example, additional investments will be made through the sector plans to reduce the workload. The ‘starting grants and incentive grants’ [starters en stimuleringsbeurzen, red.] will provide scope for basic research and the appointment of additional staff to foster a collaborative ‘team spirit’ where appropriate. The vulnerable position of temporary university lecturers is also considered, with a proposal to allow them to spend 20% of their time on research.

Alleviating the workload is important for all academics, but the Young Academy supports the minister’s decision to allocate extra resources to young scientists and scholars. This will provide an additional boost for the future of higher education and research in the Netherlands and ensure that a career in academia remains attractive. We are, however, concerned that some of the instruments proposed in the policy letter will not contribute to achieving these aims.

New competition

We are concerned about the individual starting and incentive grants, which feature prominently in the policy letter. One of the main objectives of these grants is to reduce the vast number of grant applications being submitted, but we fear that this objective will not be achieved. Approximately 500 new university lecturers qualify for a starting grant. It is unclear among how many of them the grant money will be distributed. The sum of EUR 144 million in incentive grants will be distributed among the remaining 11,000 researchers. There is therefore not enough money for everyone, unless the maximum incentive grant is EUR 13,000. Universities, departments or faculties must find a way to distribute the extra funding and that will inevitably create a new competition, along with the associated workload.

We also worry that the starting and incentive grants will have unforeseen side effects. These grants make it more attractive for departments to hire new university lecturers. We consider it likely that a sizeable group of university lecturers will use their starting grant to take on a PhD student. This would result in even more PhD students also wanting a permanent post (and a starting grant), even though there are often not enough permanent posts to go around now. In other words, competition would be increasing here as well. Finally, shifting part of the competition for funding to the university, faculty or department poses a risk to social safety, for example because necessary criticism is stifled by a researcher’s even greater dependence – including, after all, their financial dependence – on a department head.

What’s the answer?

The Young Academy believes that the most important remedy for the skyrocketing workload is to reduce the degree of inequality between academics. Equality can be improved, first of all, by ensuring that everyone has time to do their research. And by that we mean real time, not time ‘on paper’. The Minister shares our view, and has stated that there is no question that all university lecturers must be able to spend at least 40% of their time on research. Meeting this criterion would represent a genuine revolution in many disciplines and would satisfy a greater need than awarding individual grants to a limited number of individual researchers. It therefore requires the flexible use of additional resources.

In anticipation of a more detailed version of the policy letter, The Young Academy would like to make the following recommendations:

  1. Universities, seize this investment as an opportunity to stop issuing grinding, precarious contracts.
  2. Ensure that all academics can devote at least 40% of their time to research. We consider the close relationship between teaching and research crucial for academic education. The basic premise should be that a full-time academic should spend at least two days a week working on research. This is by no means the case in every discipline. The sector plans could play a role in this, but only if they are not used to hire new, temporary staff (e.g. post-docs).
  3. Distribute the budget for starting grants to all university lecturers as a starting package and extend the expenditure period to ten years. Reducing the amount of the package and extending the period of validity will encourage cooperation (for example, in supervising a PhD student or collecting data).
  4. The challenges of a heavy workload and social safety call for strong leadership and team science. We recommend that Recognition and Rewards should not be seen as a separate programme but rather be included in the new instruments. The basis for distributing the sector plans and incentive grants should be a broad understanding of academic quality.
  5. Knowledge institutions should develop a practical plan for mobilising the new resources. To ensure that the extra budget is passed on to researchers and that the workload is truly reduced, the new instruments must be closely monitored and evaluated. If necessary, it should be possible to make adjustments to the instruments.

We gladly accept the Minister’s invitation to discuss the details of the proposals and their alignment with the competitive grants distributed by the Dutch Research Council (NWO). The Young Academy is deeply committed to improving the well-being of young researchers. This includes researchers who are forced to flee to the Netherlands owing to war or other threats, and for whom resources are urgently needed to provide them with flexible and immediate temporary support. We believe that the forthcoming investments represent a significant opportunity to improve the Dutch science system and to ensure that the key objectives set out in the policy letter are met.

The Young Academy, 29 June 2022

 

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