Merit rises to spur on Dutch science

September 26, 2003

The Dutch government will reward successful scientific research with extra funding in an effort to raise quality by increasing competition among researchers and institutions.

Minister of education Maria van der Hoeven has said that a merit system will help keep Dutch research competitive with that of international rivals.

"Our scientific research shows high peaks, but lows as well. Things can be better," she said in a speech at the University of Tilburg marking the opening of the academic year.

The shape of the research rating system is not yet known. The options will be studied by a recently founded "innovation platform" under the leadership of prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende. The platform, which includes representatives of universities, government and industry, is expected to announce to its initial conclusions early next year.

To ensure that top-class research is rewarded, the government will change the way it distributes money. It will give less research money directly to institutions and instead channel more resources through the Dutch Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), which distributes funding among research projects. The NWO controls 10 per cent of the total research budget.

The minister's plans have had a mixed reception.

Frans van Vught, vice-chancellor of the University of Twente, backs the proposals. "It is disappointing when you provide top research but get nothing extra to show for it - as is the case in many universities now. I'm afraid that it will lead to feelings of despair among researchers."

But the Association of Dutch Universities, which represents all 14 Dutch institutions, is more critical.

"How are you going to measure the quality?" asked spokesman Irma Luijken.

"Who's going to judge that? And how often? At any rate, it's important that universities keep the final responsibility over the allotment of research funds, so that less attractive research areas will be financed as well. It cannot be that only research areas relevant to industry obtain funding."

The NWO regards the discussion about merit rating as a distraction from the real issue. "Perhaps merit rating will provide a quality impulse," spokesperson Dominique de Vet said.

"But there also is another way: more money for the sector as a whole," Ms de Vet said.

The minister of education has also said that the Netherlands needed to remove the barriers that hamper the commercialisation of research and hinder the development of a knowledge-based economy.

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