Dutch end ‘one-sided’ research focus and hope world follows

Proposals include new job classifications, a rolling back of metrics, and shorter publication lists in a bid to end excessive ‘emphasis on research performance’

December 3, 2019
Source: Getty
Measuring off proposals in the Netherlands include a rolling back of metrics

Higher education institutions across the world should follow a move by the Netherlands to reward academics for more than just research prowess, the head of the country’s university association has said, following the release of new proposals to change scholars’ career incentives.

Dutch universities and funding agencies want an end to what they say is a “one-sided emphasis on research performance” at the expense of teaching, social impact and management, plus open and collaborative scholarship.

“This is a long wished-for movement not just in the Netherlands, but also an international ambition,” said Pieter Duisenberg, president of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU).

Other countries “will hopefully make the same movement,” he said, with the Netherlands recently hosting a pan-European conference on the issue.

From 2021, the VSNU will roll out new academic job classifications that it hopes will better allow scholars to focus on things other than research, such as teaching.

While positions will still contain elements of both research and teaching, “they will absolutely be different from what they are today”, he said.

The reforms were a response to academics hitting the “limits of the Dutch science system”, said Rianne Letschert, rector of Maastricht University. “I have so many academics who do their utmost for their students...but it’s always on top of everything else, on weekends. That’s the stress you are under. Those who do less research see their careers stop at some point.”

“We have a tendency in some disciplines that you need to do everything before you’re 40, otherwise you’ve failed,” Professor Letschert added. This stopped academics pursuing other aspects of life, she said, but the reforms should allow more flexibility in academic careers.

Other ideas, set out in a position paper, Room for Everyone’s Talent, include asking grant applicants for a “top 10” of research publications, rather than a voluminous list, so as not to exclude academics who have not dedicated their careers to research.

Under the proposals, doctoral candidates will face less pressure to publish in journals before they can defend their thesis. Universities wanted to end “a culture of ticking boxes and unjustified publication pressure for PhD students”, a VSNU spokesman said.

The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research has recently prohibited the use of h-indices and journal impact factors in all its assessment procedures, a spokesman said. Since 2018, it has also started a separate scheme focusing more on the research ideas proposed, rather than the career background of the applicant, the spokesman said.

Mr Duisenberg also called for a discussion between universities and rankings bodies about how to better incorporate things other than research into their scoring systems. “If we are going to reassess the way we value quality, that would hopefully...be a trigger for ranking agencies [to ask] whether they should look at other values or weightings,” he said.

There are fears, however, that the changes could push Dutch academics away from blue-skies enquiry. “I do have some concerns that we may swing the pendulum too far and that curiosity-driven basic scientists or people that are not so communicative are left behind,” cautioned Marion Koopmans, head of the department of viroscience at the Erasmus University Medical Center.

“We already see that a lot of weight of grant applications in our country and also at [European Union] level is on getting the story across, describing impact rather than scientific detail and rigour,” she said.


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Reader's comments (1)

There should be more flexibility in academic careers, but not only for teachers within the universities. Researchers also have had their careers stopped by other life-family-career decisions, and have come back to do research often more and with better quality than within the universities. It is a scandal of block-head thinking in management for teaching and research employment.


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