Science - September 25, 2014

Not enough to go around

Text:
Rob Ramaker,Albert Sikkema

Dutch scientists compete relentlessly for research grants. In recent weeks, this battle and the body responsible for it, NWO, have come in for some harsh criticism. The system is thought to cost too much time and money, and to necessitate arbitrary decisions and unfairness. Does NWO divide up the research budget in the best way possible?

Dolf Weijers

Professor of Biochemistry and member of the KNAW’s Young Academy 

‘NWO handles too little money as efficiently as possible. These days some three-quarters of all proposals are assessed as being worthy of subsidy, but only about ten percent receive funding. That’s the problem. Committees find it terribly difficult to choose between great, even better and slightly lesser proposals. Arbitrary decisions are the result. Until open competitions get substantially more money, I don’t see any fundamentally different way of sharing out the funding. Allowing the university to divide up the money won’t diminish the criticism one iota. That’s how it was in the past, so I don’t know if that’s a better alternative.’ 

Cees Leeuwis

Professor of Communication and Innovation Studies

‘I agree with the criticism about NWO. The selection process is a costly spectacle of committees and interviews that add little value. If the differences between the research proposals are minor, I think it would be a charming idea to draw lots. Other than that I think: give some of the NWO money back to the universities. That would be good for research. In the past, as a scientist you were expected to spend 40 percent of your time doing research. Now you have to spend that 40 percent writing proposals in the hope of securing future income. The scales have tipped: hardly any long-term research is being funded these days.’ 

Emely de Vet

Associate Professor, Strategic Communication group

‘While the process is fair, it is also very time-consuming. Many people write proposals yet only a few of them can secure funding. Another tricky issue is that knowledge utilization is becoming an ever greater consideration in the distribution of funding. I see that as being a completely different expertise, and one that you can’t expect every scientist to have mastered. A proposal must be scientifically strong and the idea of being assessed on other matters makes me feel uneasy.’

Jeroen Candel

Chair of Wageningen PhD Council

‘Personally, I haven’t had any dealings with NWO but I hear a lot of dissatisfaction with NWO’s focus on excellence. What is that, excellence, and how do you assess it? Added to that, the many assessment committees are very costly. I think you’d do better giving the money straight to the universities; they’d be a better judge. Link the funding to, say, tenure track.’

Gerlinde de Deyn

Associate Professor, Department of Soil Quality

‘The main thing is the pots of money need to be bigger. I’ve sat on committees that received more good proposals than they could fund. In that case, you draw an arbitrary line: numbers one to three get funding while numbers four and five are no less good. For me, that’s where the greatest problem lies. What’s more, you can’t help wondering just how efficient we’re being. Look at the amount of time this system requires. Time given by the committee members who do it as a service alongside their work, as well as the time of researchers who write proposals.’

Bart Thomma

Professor of Phytopathology

‘You can find fault with the way in which NWO distributes the money. For instance, there is regularly discussion about whether the system of peer review creates scope for nepotism. What’s more, undesirable factors play a role, such as the make-up of a committee and the persuasiveness of individual committee members. Nonetheless, I believe that in general the money is distributed pretty fairly. Besides, personally I don’t see any alternative to NWO. If you let universities make the selection, you’ll have the same problems.’

Jos Engelen

Chair of NWO

‘Much of the criticism stems from the fact that the funding for scientific research is tight, too tight. Both direct government funding and government funding allocated via a research organization. As a result, NWO gets more good applications for research than it has a budget for. NWO is not deaf to cries for its procedures to be optimized. Over the past year NWO has been preparing its new strategy for 2015-2018, which involves aiming to reduce the workload of scientists – both applicants and assessors. An undertaking in which NWO is collaborating with the universities and which is underpinned by the guiding principle that the NWO will continue to distribute its resources competitively on the basis of quality and peer review.’ 



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