Science - November 13, 2014

Less and less room for curiosity

Rob Ramaker

About 60 percent of Wageningen professors say the ease of finding funding determines what topics they research, according to a survey by the journalistic platform Follow the Money.

They sent a questionnaire to 180 professors, 48 of whom completed it. Prompted by these findings, Resource spoke to some of the professors.

Cees Leeuwis, professor of Knowledge, Technology and Innovation, is not surprised by the survey results. ‘There is definitely not enough room for self-initiated basic research.’ Academic staff get only 15 percent in structural funding, says Leeuwis. The rest they have to ‘earn’. Follow the Money provides figures to support the argument that Wageningen University is becoming increasingly dependent on external funding sources. It should be noted that this includes the EU and the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) as well as the private sector.

• External funding increasingly determines research agenda.

• More emphasis on practical applicability of research.

Bart Thomma, professor of Phytopathology, is actually surprised by how low the number is. ‘I’d have expected more than 60 percent.’ Thomma himself is also concerned about this issue. ‘It’s good that you have to convince people of your ideas, but we are now going too far.’ Funding organizations are increasingly giving priority to the practical applicability of research. Thomma has seen a shift in this direction even in the course of his relatively short career. ‘They never used to ask about utilization when you applied for NWO grants. Then they had an optional section where you could discuss that. Then it became mandatory but it didn’t count and now it has become really important.’ In addition, funding organizations are increasingly encouraging researchers to collaborate with companies even in basic research. Despite this, both Leeuwis and Thomma still see opportunities to follow your own interests. ‘There is room to go your own way within the financial boundaries,’ says Leeuwis. Thomma even turns the whole thing around. He comes up with a research idea and then looks for funding. ‘You should proactively work the market rather than wait meekly.’

Johan van Arendonk, the Dean of Sciences, sees that in practice research quality determines who attracts grants. ‘A good focus is crucial there.’ So he is not afraid that professors will start aiming at projects outside their field of expertise. He admits that the relative growth in contract research is putting more pressure on researchers. But he says that smart people who perform good research are still finding funding. ‘There will always be room for curiosity-driven research. ‘And there will always be people calling for more room.’

Re:actions 1

  • NP

    "Thomma even turns the whole thing around. He comes up with a research idea and then looks for funding. ‘You should proactively work the market rather than wait meekly.’"

    Seriously? Is that turning the thing around? I thought that that is exactly as it should be... Thank you for opening my eyes even more! :)