Scientists across the globe spend a substantial part of their time writing research proposals for competitive grant schemes. Usually, less than one in seven proposals gets funded. Moreover, the level of competition and the waste of time invested in research proposals that do not receive funding are increasing.
The most important funder of science in the Netherlands, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), is painfully aware of the research competition crisis. On April 4, 2017, more than one hundred of the nation’s scientists gathered in a conference to come up with solutions for the crisis. I was one of them.
The conference made clear that the key problem is that we have too many good candidates and high quality research proposals that cannot be funded with the current budget. Without an increase in the budget for research funding, however, that problem is unlikely to go away.
Stan Gielen, the new director of NWO, opened the conference. Because the universities and NWO lack bargaining power in the government that determines the budget for NWO, he asked the scientists at the conference to think about ‘streamlining procedures’. In roundtable discussions, researchers talked about questions like: “How can the time it takes between a final ranking in a grant competition and the announcement of the result to applicants be reduced?”
Many proposals came up during the meeting. The more radical proposals were to discontinue funding for NWO altogether and to reallocate funding back to the universities, to give a larger number of smaller grants, to allocate funding through lotteries among top-rated applications, and the idea by Scheffer to give researchers voting rights on funding allocations. I left the meeting with an increased sense of urgency but with little hope for a solution. Gielen concluded the meeting with the promise to initiate conversations with the ministry for Education, Culture and Science about the results of the conference and to report back within six months.
Yesterday, NWO presented its proposals. None of the ideas above made it. Instead, a set of measures were announced that are unlikely to increase chances of funding. The press release does not say why ineffective measures were favored over effective measures.
Two of the proposals by NWO shift work to the universities, giving them responsibility in pre-evaluations of proposals. At the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam we already make quite an investment in such pre-evaluations, but not all universities do so. Also the universities are now told to use an instrument to reduce the number of proposals: the financial guarantee. Also this proposal is akin to a measure we already had in place, the obligatory budget check. The financial guarantee is an additional hurdle applicants have to take.
The proposal to give non-funded but top-rated ERC proposals a second chance at NWO reduces some of the work for applicants, but does not increase chances for funding.
A final proposal is to ask applicants to work together with other applicants with related ideas. It may be a good idea for other reasons, but does not increase chances for funding.
One of the causes of the problem that funding chances are declining is the reward that universities get for graduations of PhD candidates (‘promotiepremie’). This reward keeps up the supply of good researchers. PhD candidates are prepared and motivated for careers in science. But these careers are increasingly hard to get into. As long as the dissertation defense reward is in place, one long term solution is to change the curriculum in graduate schools, orienting them to non-academic careers.
Another long-term solution is to diversify funding sources for science. In the previous cabinets, the ministry of Economic Affairs has co-controlled funding allocations to what were labeled ‘topsectors’. Evaluations of this policy have been predominantly negative. One of the problems is that the total budget for science was not increased, but the available budget was partly reallocated for applied research in energy, water, logistics etcetera. It is unclear how the new government thinks about this, but it seems a safe bet not to have much hope for creative ideas from this side. But there is hope for a private sector solution.
There is a huge amount of wealth in the Netherlands that investment bankers are trying to invest responsibly. As a result of increases in wealth, the number of private foundations established that support research and innovation has increased strongly in the past two decades. These foundations are experimenting with new financial instruments like impact investing and venture philanthropy. The current infrastructure and education at universities, however, is totally unfit to tap into this potential of wealth. Which graduate program offers a course in creating a business case for investments in research?