Category Archives: VU University

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

Varieties of plagiarism

Academic misconduct figures prominently in the press this week: Peter Nijkamp, a well-known Dutch economist at VU University Amsterdam, supervised a dissertation in which self-plagiarism occurred, according to a ruling of an integrity committee of the National Association of Universities in the Netherlands. The complaint led two national newspapers to dig into the work of Nijkamp. NRC published an article by research journalist Frank van Kolfschooten, who took a small sample of his publications and found 6 cases of plagiarism, and 8 cases of self-plagiarism. Today De Volkskrant reports self-plagiarism in 60% of 115 articles co-authored by Nijkamp. VU University rector Frank van der Duyn Schouten said in a preliminary statement that he does not believe Nijkamp plagiarized on purpose, that the criteria for self-plagiarism have been changing in the past decades, and that they are currently not clear. The university issued a full investigation of Nijkamp’s publications.


Nijkamp’s profile on Google Scholar is polluted. It counts 28,860 citations, but includes papers written by others, like  Zoltan Acs and Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman. A Web of Knowledge author search yielded 3,638 citations of his 426 (co-authored) publications, 3,310 excluding self-citations. That’s 7.8 citations per article.  His H-index is 29. Typically Nijkamp appears as a co-author on publications. He is the single author of only one of his top 10 most cited articles, ranking 10th, with 58 citations.

The Nijkamp case looks different from another prominent case of self-citation in economics, by Bruno Frey. Frey submitted nearly identical research papers to different journals. Nijkamp seems to have allowed his many co-authors to copy and paste sentences and sometimes entire paragraphs from other articles he co-authored – which can be classified as self-plagiarism.

January 15, 2014 update: Nijkamp responded in a letter posted here that there may have been some flaws and accidents, but that these are to be expected in what he calls “the beautiful industry of academic publishing”.

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New Director at Center for Philanthropic Studies

The Center for Philanthropic Studies at VU University Amsterdam has a new director. As of January 1, 2014, René Bekkers continues the work of the Center’s founder, Theo Schuyt. Schuyt remains Professor of Philanthropic Studies and Bekkers remains Professor Social Aspects of Prosocial Behavior. As the new director, Bekkers will continue the Center’s research on Philanthropy in the Netherlands, that Schuyt started at VU University Amsterdam. Since 1995 the Center publishes ‘Giving in the Netherlands’, the biennial macroeconomic study of sources and destinations of philanthropy, based on microdata about households, corporations and endowed foundations, and on additional data on charity lotteries and bequests. The Dutch government funds the research. The next edition is planned for publication in 2015. Bekkers: “I am extremely proud that I can continue this line of research. Giving in the Netherlands shows the societal significance of philanthropy. Because of its longitudinal design and its rich set of measures it is unique in the world, and of great scientific value.”

In the past years the research at the Center for Philanthropic Studies has increasingly focused on Europe. In 2007 the European Research Network on Philanthropy (ERNOP) was founded at VU University Amsterdam. The ERNOP counts about 100 members in 20 countries. In 2011 the Center published ‘Giving in Evidence’, a comparative study of philanthropic sources of funding for universities and other higher education institutions. Currently the Center coordinates the EUFORI study on European Funding for Research and Innovation, conducted by a consortium of experts in 29 countries in Europe. The Center will continue this international line of research in the coming years. Schuyt remains the chair of ERNOP until 2018. In 2014 Bekkers will start a two-year European study on the impact of volunteering on volunteers and society at large.

Bekkers is Professor Social Aspects of Prosocial Behavior since January 2013, supported by the Van der Gaag Foundation of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has been involved in the Giving in the Netherlands research since 2001, obtained his PhD at the Department of Sociology at Utrecht University in 2004, and came to VU University Amsterdam in 2008. His research examines causes and consequences of philanthropic behavior using a combination of longitudinal panel surveys and experiments. Theo Schuyt is professor of Philanthropic Studies at VU University Amsterdam since 2001. Schuyt will remain actively involved in the Giving in the Netherlands research and remains responsible for the postgraduate education program in Philanthropic Studies.

More information about the Center for Philanthropic Studies is available at

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