Wetenschap - 9 februari 2012

What do ambitious researchers need in order to thrive? No Harvard on the Rhine

Wageningen needs to create a more invigorating climate for top research. Four seasoned experts scrutinise the academic culture at the Born. 'We mustn't be fixated on Harvard.'

Joris Sprakel is the first to answer. 'Money!' he shouts in response to the question what it takes to produce outstanding research. 'No, we talk too much about money, actually', responds Erwin Bulte. And the ball is rolling.
At the invitation of Resource, four researchers with experience at top institutes are pondering the academic climate at Wageningen. They have met on the second floor of Hotel De Wereld.
Among the scientists is Dolf Weijers, one of the initiators of the Young Academy launched two weeks ago. The academy is made up of talented researchers who want to stimulate the right sort of climate for top research. They aim to attract distinguished speakers to Wageningen and promote interaction between Wageningen highfliers in different fields.
This raises questions about the academic culture at the Born. Is it stimulating enough? How is this university doing compared with the top universities? After one and a half hours of discussion in De Wereld, one thing is clear: Harvard is not the be-all and end-all. Although we could use a bit more scientific 'drive'.
Too much money talk
So Joris Sprakel feels the need for more funding. 'My own research is highly dependent on equipment. I notice that it is very hard to secure major investments and in my subject area this means quite simply that we lag behind places that don't have this problem.'
But funnily enough, it is the economist in the group, Erwin Bulte, who thinks there is too much talk of money in Wageningen. 'That is not always the issue. The IPOP theme for research on complex systems has now got to be linked with top sectors. What you will see now is that very interesting subjects, which you would love to work on, will disappear over the horizon. Another sticking point is tenure track, with acquisition requirements being set which are not realistic, I think. This is to the detriment of the academic work. I want people from my group to be able to dedicate themselves heart and soul to their research. They should be publishing as well as possible, get every opportunity to do their work and not have to worry too much about acquisition.'
Dolf Weijers nods in agreement. 'I am not sure money makes such a difference either. I really like being spurred on by contact with someone who has been very successful, someone who can inspire you to keep on going all out. What I'm talking about here is also one of the reasons for setting up the young academy. The aim is to have real contact with people who are ambitious. To create a platform where you can share your ambitions and find support and reinforcement for them.'
Sprakel: 'And yet there are surely some very successful scientists at Wageningen.'
Weijers: 'That's true. But I also have in mind people who are doing very well internationally. There simply isn't a tradition of bringing those sorts of people to Wageningen. My point is: the people who are in the Veni, Vidi, Vici system are probably going to make it. What I want is to provide inspiration for people who haven't got that far yet - a PhD student who ends up getting frustrated because things don't work out, or a postdoc who is wondering whether he'd better get out of academia. We have to show them that there really are possibilities, based not just on their own research group but also on a supportive wider community.'
Vera Ros: 'But that is already happening of course. We've got WEES, the Wageningen Ecology Evolution Series. These are monthly lectures for which we invite world-class speakers. I don't think it is well enough publicized, though.'
Bulte: 'When it comes to the culture, it's up to us. Regularly inviting inspiring people to speak is a practical point, and something we have to do ourselves.'
Ros: 'And we have the Science Café too now. That is going well; it's packed out every time. That is motivating.'
Weijers: 'It is part of a culture in which you realise that science is enjoyable.'
Bulte: 'Yes, I think that's really good, too. But besides that, there are some factors in the Wageningen UR system that work against a strong academic climate. There is an emphasis on quantity at the expense of quality. More students, more PhDs. My goodness, in our Development Economics group we have more PhD students that the whole economics department at Tilburg - which is five times the size. At Tilburg I worked with my fellow professors, here I mainly work with students. That leads to different sorts of projects, of course.'
Collaboration, not competition
All four of the scientists at the table have spent some time at universities abroad. What are the differences between those top institutes and Wageningen?
Ros: 'At Pennsylvania it struck me how strong the collaboration was between different groups. People really look beyond the borders of their disciplines.'
Sprakel: 'In the Netherlands we are full of talk about interdisciplinary research, especially in the natural sciences. But as soon as you really try to go for it, you find it difficult to get funding for it. Sorry, there I go, talking about money again.'
Bulte: 'That may be true, but I do think Wageningen is a positive exception in that respect. That is why I came ­here, too. Look at the IPOP or the INREF programmes, for example: they are attempts to establish interaction between groups.'
Weijers points out another cultural difference. 'At the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen, fantastic people come and speak on a regular basis. That kind of seminar took place on a Monday evening at a quarter past eight. You went along and soaked up the science. That is unimaginable here.'
Sprakel: 'That is something that has completely astonished me. At five o'clock the chemistry building is almost empty. At Harvard, the place is busy around the clock. People are recording and working even at night. Here people see science as a job; in America they see it as a mission. There people aim to do one thing, and to be the best at it. That attitude is totally ingrained. There is a lot of competition.'
Weijers: 'How did you like that?'
Sprakel: 'I saw a case where two people were taken on when there was one job going. The first one to come up with results got the job. Appalling.'
Bulte: 'You want to publish at a high level, no question about that, but in the end I don't think science can flourish in a competitive atmosphere. In Tilburg I saw how the economics faculty kept a beady eye on their competitors-cum-colleagues at the University of Amsterdam. It was so bad that if Amsterdam got an article in a top journal, people in Tilburg were down in the mouth. Now, that is too crazy for words, if you can't be pleased for your colleague.'
Ros: 'You want people to share things. You get more out of cooperation.'
Bulte: 'Yes, our group thrives better on cooperation than on competition. Within our niche, by collaborating on big projects we can achieve unique results. That makes us of value to others as well. If I were to try and create a mini-Harvard in our group, based on internal competition, I would take away the one weapon we have.'
Sprakel:  'Nevertheless, I think that top-class scientists are competitive. And they are the ones who get your institution high on the Times Higher Education list.'
Weijers: 'Yes, that is an interesting point. Precisely because the wish has been expressed here to get ourselves higher up those lists. Perhaps these two things do not go together: a high ranking and a caring attitude towards each other.'
Sprakel: 'The governing body at Groningen wants to turn it into the Harvard of the Netherlands. A misguided ambition. People put themselves first and don't care about their staff. Compared to Harvard, precisely what I value in the Dutch model is that people who are struggling a bit can be carried along in the wake of others, because they are given some at­tention and coaching. I think it's nice to give someone a chance when they are going through a difficult period in their life.'
Bulte: 'I don't see us as competition for Harvard...'
Sprakel (laughing): 'Nor does Harvard, I should think!'
Bulte: 'We are too small for everything. We should stay in our niche, and do as well as we can there. Go beyond that, and we're overestimating ourselves.'
Flat organization
Weijers: 'Something else: what I often wonder is whether the very hierarchical system in the Netherlands affects the academic climate. You have mentioned American universities that have a very flat culture. Here the individual researcher has a very limited role to play in strategic decisions.'
Sprakel: 'As it happens we raised this issue just a month ago. Our chair holder is leaving. We have made a cautious proposal for a flat organization, to see how that would work in our lab. So instead of having one big kingpin, with everyone else standing somewhat in his or her shadow, everyone is equal and has a share of the financial responsibilities. But people are not open to this at present.'
Weijers: 'That is understandable from the organization's point of view. But if you are looking to create a stimulating climate, I think every ambitious researcher wants to take on some responsibility and get recognition for his successes.'
Bulte: 'If you ask me, it depends on the make-up of the group. If it gets some enlightened leadership from someone who can get 'a thousand flowers blooming', and who can sometimes persuade people to tackle things together, then things go very well. But if the group is led by a top dog who cannot or doesn't want to do this, it is deadly for everyone else.'
Sprakel: 'Exactly. That way, you stifle ambition. You really want everyone to progress as fast as possible on the strength of their own motivation.'
Weijers: 'I think that is a strong factor. Spreading responsibilities creates a stimulating academic climate. If people share the full range of responsibilities, including attracting funding, allocating budgets, appointing staff and running doctoral research, this provides a tremendous stimulus to do their best and to stay ambitious.'
Participants:
Dolf Weijers, Biochemistry.
Did post-doc research at the University of Tübingen.
Received an ERC grant in 2011.
Vera Ros, Virology.
Did post-doc research at the University of Pennsylvania.
Received a Veni grant in 2011.
Erwin Bulte, Development Economics.
Also research fellow at the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and professor at Tilburg.
Received a Vici grant in 2010.
Joris Sprakel, Physical
Chemistry and Colloid Science.Did post-doc research at Harvard University.
Received a Veni grant in 2011.

Re:ageer