News - February 11, 2016

Top salary for top scientists?

Roelof Kleis,Rob Ramaker

Top scientists should be allowed to earn more than a minister, otherwise the most talented people will move abroad, fears the Dutch Association of Universities (VSNU). So an exception should be made for academia in the act regulating senior executive pay in the public sector. Is that fear justified?

Martin Scholten, Managing Director, Animal Sciences Group

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‘In my experience, the salary is not a major concern for top scientists at Wageningen University. They look at the conditions for carrying out top-level research: the laboratory equipment, the number of PhD candidates and postdocs, and how good they are. Scientists never mention the salary to me as the reason why they’re looking for another job. Perhaps it plays a role in the fields of medicine and economics.

‘Incidentally, we can’t offer them much anyway as a university. The funding for basic research has really dried up. And much of the money that is available has been earmarked, for specific subjects and social relevance for example. That leaves no money to attract top scientists. If I could give the Dutch parliament some advice, I would say that the lack of funding is the Achilles heel. I don’t see what problem higher maximum salaries are solving in our field.’

Marleen Kamperman, Physical Chemistry and Soft Matter group

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‘I don’t think this is an issue in my group. Scientists aren’t so driven by money. Perhaps salary plays a role for people who are of Spinoza laureate calibre. I can imagine that you might offer them a package to keep them in the Netherlands. Not so much in terms of salary as in terms of working conditions. I’m a member of the Young Academy, so I know Maaike Kroon from Eindhoven University, who went to Abu Dhabi. But I think for her too it was the challenge of setting up a graduate programme rather than the higher salary that persuaded her to go. Salaries in the academic world are skewed in comparison with the private sector. But you know that when you decide to work for a university.’ 

Jan-Willem Kortlever, Resource blogger

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‘The Netherlands is a knowledge-driven society. We desperately need top scientists. That might require a salary that is more than what a minister earns. If that’s the only way of keeping someone on board, it should be possible. The question is, who is worth that? Should we set a percentage for each university, for instance? How should you arrange that and how far should you go? I think it’s difficult to win the race against foreign scientific institutions. Personally I think a real scientist attaches more importance to having a good scientific climate to work in rather than a high salary. I wouldn’t move for 20 percent more pay. But what if you could earn twice as much somewhere else?’

Chantal Vogels, secretary of the Wageningen PhD Council


‘It’s debatable whether higher salary is the main motivating factor for researchers. If you want to earn a lot, you choose the private sector, not academia. Certainly young scientists find conditions in the Dutch academic world more important. T

ake career opportunities and the proportion of successful grant applications, for example. That seems to me to be far more important for the competitive position of the Netherlands than one person’s salary. They should really investigate why scientists leave the Netherlands – just ask them why. If salary does turn out to be a key factor, that changes things.’

Marian Stuiver, WUR Council chair


‘Who will decide who is a top scientist? It is debatable whether you can measure quality fairly just using the number of citations, for example. Should you just look at the quality of the research or also at the teaching? What is more, this means you are determining the quality of individuals. We aren’t in favour of this individualization because science is often teamwork. You need to look at the quality of the group as a whole. We also wonder why you should focus so one-sidedly on pay. You could reward good researchers with more opportunities.’

Liesje Mommer, professor holding a personal chair in Plant Ecology

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‘I’m not motivated by salary and I don’t think my colleagues are either. If you want to be rich, you shouldn’t become an academic. Even my children realize that. It’s the climate at a university or institute that’s more important: what’s the work pressure like, the atmosphere, tenure track? Those are the reasons why colleagues leave or stay. The chances of research projects getting funding are also incredibly low in the Netherlands. That can be another reason for moving abroad. Incidentally, I do agree with the principle that performance should be rewarded. You don’t need to pay everyone the same. But I won’t be leaving just because I can get a better salary somewhere else. I came to Wageningen because I have a lot of connections here with other scientists that are important for my work.’