Dutch to rein in scramble for research grants in sector shake-up

‘Competition in scientific research has gone too far,’ says government-appointed committee proposing wide-ranging reform package

May 21, 2019
people cycling on tandem bikes in the Netherlands
Source: Alamy
Advance in tandem: competition results in ‘wasted hours writing proposals’

The Netherlands is set to shake up its university funding system to reduce competition between academics for research grants, cutting the time spent on largely unsuccessful funding applications.

Changes proposed in a major review of the sector mark a turn away from a competitive philosophy, reflecting growing Dutch concerns that the costs of pitting academics against each other in pursuit of funding have begun to outweigh the benefits.

Some €100 million (£88 million) a year should be transferred away from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, which distributes competitive grants, and instead go directly to universities, according to a committee tasked by the Dutch government to come up with reforms.

“Competition in scientific research has…gone too far,” the committee concluded, announcing its findings in a report called Changing Track.

The move should “decrease the wasted hours that academics spend on writing proposals that will never see the light of day”, said Thijs Bol, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam, who has investigated the impact of grant competition.

In some fields, success rates have dropped as low as 10 to 15 per cent, he said. With such “insanely low” win percentages, “it becomes very arbitrary who gets or doesn’t get a research grant”, Dr Bol said.

Excessive workload and stress have emerged as key concerns in Dutch academia: tens of thousands of lecturers and teachers demonstrated in The Hague in March to demand better pay and working conditions. But whether this latest suggestion relieves pressure on academics depends on how universities spend the extra money, Dr Bol cautioned.

The committee has also recommended shifting money towards science and technology students to accommodate labour market demands. There has been a surge of candidates wishing to study these fields, which has forced universities to introduce grade thresholds to cope, the committee notes as evidence of the need for more resources.

Such a shift could mean big budget increases for some of the country’s universities of technology, including Delft (8 per cent) and Eindhoven (8 per cent), according to calculations by Carel Stolker, the rector of Leiden University.

But it would also mean reductions for less technically focused institutions such as the Dutch Open University and Maastricht University. If money is shifted to science and technology, this will “necessitate substantial and damaging budget cuts for the humanities, social sciences and medical sciences”, warned Pieter Duisenberg, president of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands.

“These disciplines, which are of major importance to society, are already besieged by excessive workload and other problems,” he said.

The committee also wants to end the link between university funding and enrolment numbers, arguing that this creates “perverse” incentives for excessive growth. The idea is also to give universities more stable funding to improve long-term planning.

These proposed changes are so far only recommendations. The government is set to respond to them in June. A spokesman for the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science said that the minister, Ingrid van Engelshoven, had described the suggestions as “very interesting” and had praised the committee chair, Martin van Rijn, a former Labour party politician, as having done a “very good job”.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: ‘Gone too far’: Dutch set to rein in fight for research grant funding

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