Category Archives: Europe

How not to solve the research competition crisis

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.


Now what?

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?





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Filed under Europe, incentives, policy evaluation, politics, VU University

Resilience and Philanthropy

This post in pdf

With the year 2020 on the horizon, the recently published work programme for Research & Innovation from European Commission for the years 2016-2017 is organized around a limited set of Societal Challenges. Europe defined these challenges after a long process of lobbying and consultation with many stakeholders. Going through the list I could not help thinking that something was missing. I do not mean that the list of challenges is a result of a political process and does not seem to reflect an underlying vision of Europe. I am thinking about the current refugee crisis. The stream of refugees arriving at the gates of Europe poses new challenges to Europe, in many areas: humanitarian assistance, citizenship, poverty, inclusion, access to education, and jobs. The stream of refugees also raises important questions for philanthropy. How will Europe deal with these challenges? How resilient is Europe? Will governments, nonprofit organizations and citizens be able to deal with this challenge? In the definition of the Rockefeller Foundation, resilience is the capacity of individuals, communities and systems to survive, adapt, and grow in the face of stress and shocks, and even transform when conditions require it. I define resilience as the mobilization of resources for the improvement of welfare in the face of adversity.

Among refugees, who are seeking a better future for themselves and their children, we see resilience. Threatened by adversity in their home countries, they take grave risks by placing their fate in the hands of human traffickers, foreign police officers. They rely on each other and their inner strength, hoping that what they left behind is worse than their future. We see a lack of resilience in Europe. The continent was not ready for the large stream of refugees. Some member states pass on the stream to each other by closing their borders. Other national governments try to accommodate refugees seeking asylum, but face barriers in finding housing, and resistance from groups of citizens who oppose accommodation of refugees in their communities. At the same time we see a willingness to help among other citizens, who offer assistance in the form of volunteer time, food and other goods. Perhaps the response of citizens is related to their own levels of resilience.

Resilience is not just the ability to withstand adversity or change by not changing at all. Resilience is not just sitting it out, or a strategy based on a rational computation of risks, the avoidance of risks, or flexibility and absorption of shocks. The resilient actor adapts to new situations and grows.  Neither is resilience an immutable trait of individuals, a matter of luck in the genetic lottery. Resilience has often been studied at the individual level in psychology. Resilience requires will power, perseverance, self-esteem, creativity, a proactive attitude, optimism, intrinsic motivation, inner strength, a long term orientation to the future, willingness to change for the better, risk-taking, using the force of your opponent, problem solving ability, and intelligence.

The questions for research on resilience require social scientists to study not only the response of individual citizens, but also of social systems: informal networks of citizens, social groups, nonprofit organizations, nations, and supra-national institutions. How are resilience-related traits related to philanthropy at the level of groups and systems? How can resilience among organizations be fostered? How do nonprofit organizations build and on resilience of target groups? Resilience is a very useful concept to apply to each of the societal challenges of Europe. The classic welfare state was a system that created resilience for society as a whole, reducing the need for resilience among individual citizens. The modern activating welfare state requires resilience among citizens as a condition for support. Welfare state support becomes more like charity: we favor victims of natural disasters that try to make the best of their lives and welfare recipients that are actively seeking a job.

As nonprofit organizations are trying to respond to the refugee crisis, they are also facing adversity themselves. In the United Kingdom, fundraising practices by charities have recently come under attack. In the Dutch nonprofit sector, cuts in government funding to arts and culture organizations have been a major source of adversity in the past years. Further cuts have been announced to organizations in international relief and development. In our research at the Center for Philanthropic Studies at VU Amsterdam we have asked: how willing are Dutch citizens to increase private contributions to charities when the government is lowering their financial support? Not much, is what our research shows. While some may have believed that citizens would compensate lower income from government grants through increased donations, this has not happened. When the cuts to the arts and culture organizations were announced, the minister for Education, Arts and Science said that cultural organizations should do more to raise funds from private sources and should rely less on government grants. The culture change in the cultural sector is taking place, slowly. Some organizations were not ready for this change and simply discontinued their activities. Most have decided to do with less, and see what opportunities they may have to increase fundraising income. Some have done well. On the whole, the increase in private contributions is marginal, and much less than the loss in government grants.

For nonprofit organizations, the refugee crisis poses a challenge, but also an opportunity to mobilize citizen support in an effective manner. By offering their support to the government, working together effectively, and channeling the willingness to volunteer they can demonstrate the societal impact that nonprofit organizations may have. This would be a much needed demonstration when trust in charitable organizations is low.

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Filed under disaster relief, empathy, Europe, foundations, helping, impact, Netherlands, philanthropy, psychology, trust

Philanthropic Studies: Two Historical Examples

This post was published earlier in the newsletter of the European Research Network on Philanthropy

The 20th century has seen a tremendous growth of scientific enterprise. The increasing productivity of scientists has been accompanied by a proliferation of academic disciplines. While it is hard to determine an exact time and place of birth, the emergence of a separate field of research on philanthropy – Philanthropic Studies – took place largely in the 1980s in the United States of America (Katz, 1999). Looking back further in time, philanthropy American Style obviously has European roots. My favorite example to illustrate these origins – admittedly slightly patriotic – is the way the hallmark of capitalism was financed, documented by Russell Shorto in his book The Island at the Center of the World. Wall Street was built as a defense wall by the Dutch colonists against the Indians, the Swedes and the English, funded by private contributions of the citizens of New Amsterdam. The contributions were not altruistic in the sense that they benefited the poor or in the sense that they were motivated by concern for the welfare of all. Neither were these contributions totally voluntary. There was no system of taxes in place at the time, but Peter Stuyvesant went around the richest inhabitants of the city with his troops to collect contributions, in monetary or material form. I imagine the appeal to self-interest was occasionally illustrated by a show of guns when contributions were not made spontaneously.


Today the study of philanthropy is spread over a large number of disciplines. It is not just sociologists, economists and psychologists who examine causes, consequences and correlates of philanthropy, but also scholars in public administration, political science, communication science, marketing, behavioral genetics, neurology, biology, and even psychopharmacology. Ten years ago, when Pamala Wiepking and I were writing a literature review of research on philanthropy, we gathered as many empirical research papers on philanthropy that we could find. We categorized the academic disciplines in which the research was published. The graph below displays the results of this categorization (for details, see our blog Understanding Philanthropy). The emergence of a separate field of philanthropic studies is visible, along with an increasing attention to philanthropy in economics.

After we had concluded our literature review, I detected a new classic. I would like to share this gem with you. It is an astonishing paper written by Pitirim Sorokin, a Russian sociologist who was exiled to the US in 1922. He founded the department of sociology at Harvard University in the 1930s. Before that, he conducted experiments at the University of Minnesota, and some of them examined generosity. The paper was published in German in 1928, in the Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie und Soziologie. It was not easy to obtain a copy of the paper. I managed to get one with the generous help of the staff at the University of Saskatchewan, where the complete works of Sorokin are archived; see I have posted a pdf of the paper here:


Working with two colleagues, Sorokin asked students at the University of Minnesota how much money they were willing to donate to a fund for talented students, which would allow them to buy mathematical equipment (‘diagrams and a calculator’), and varied the severity of need and social distance to the students. The experiment showed that willingness to give declined the with the severity of need and with social distance. Students were willing to donate more for fellow students who were closer to them but needed less financial assistance.

Sorokin also gave the participants statements expressing egalitarian and justice concerns, to see whether the students acted in line with their attitudes. The attitudes were much more egalitarian than the responses in the hypothetical giving experiment. He was careful enough to note that the results of the experiment could not easily be generalized and needed replication in other samples, a critique repeated forcefully by Henrich et al. (2010). Sorokin saw his experiment as the beginning of a series of studies. However, the paper seems to have been forgotten entirely – Google Scholar mentions only 7 citations, extending to 1954. This is unfortunate. The experiment is truly groundbreaking both because of its methodology and its results. More than 8 decades later, economists are conducting experiments with dictator games that are very similar to the experiment Sorokin conducted. Perhaps this brief description brings his research back onto the stage.


Bekkers, R. & Wiepking, P. (2011). ‘A Literature Review of Empirical Studies of Philanthropy: Eight Mechanisms that Drive Charitable Giving’. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 40(5): 924-973.

Henrich, J., Heine, S.J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). ‘The weirdest people in the world?’ Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33: 61–83.

Katz, S.N. (1999). ‘Where did the serious study of philanthropy come from, anyway?’ Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 28: 74-82.

Sorokin, P. (1928). ‘Experimente Zur Soziologie’. Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie und Soziologie, 1(4): 1-10.

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Filed under altruism, data, Europe, experiments, helping, history, Netherlands, philanthropy