NWO plans to overhaul its talent programme with the Veni, Vidi and Vici grants, according to a leaked memorandum. Some young scientists are very worried.
(Photo: Justyna Botor)

NWO plans to overhaul its talent programme with the Veni, Vidi and Vici grants, according to a leaked memorandum. Some young scientists are very worried.

Lees in het Nederlands

The talent programme with its popular research grants has been in existence since 2008 and the Dutch Research Council NWO believes it is time for reflection. The organisation has written a memorandum and is now gauging the opinions of researchers, administrators and the ministry.

If you canvass so many people, a leak is bound to occur. That happened (in Dutch) via the news site ScienceGuide, where a day later a group of 95 young scientists, mostly in the medical field, expressed (in Dutch) their concern.

‘The grants have become so important for researchers’ careers’

Tinkering with the talent programme would put the future of science in the Netherlands at risk, they say. In their opinion, the good position of science in the Netherlands is due partly to the Veni, Vidi and Vici grants.

Rush
NWO’s memorandum outlines the problems with the current system. The grants have become so important for researchers’ careers that there is a rush to get hold of them.

“The big rise in the number of potential applicants is out of proportion with the grant options available under the NWO talent programme, which have remained the same for many years”, the memorandum says. “The system of allocating research budget in competition is becoming increasingly expensive and time-consuming.”

The grants should therefore become less important for individuals’ careers, in the view of NWO. The research institutions should look after the careers of researchers, not NWO. In addition, European grants are available, which partially overlap the Dutch talent programme.

If NWO goes ahead with its plan, scientists will have to appeal to European programmes when their career is already in full swing, while there will be more room at NWO for postdocs on a temporary contract.

Recognition and reward
Another current discussion complicates matters. How should researchers be appraised? The trend in the Dutch scientific community is to ‘recognise and reward’ talent other than just research talent. Education, leadership and outreach are key factors as well. And NWO has committed itself to the corresponding cultural change.

‘NWO should focus on research, and not on other talent’

The presumed benefit is that scientists would then be less dependent on research grants. But this could succeed only if the universities and other research institutions have enough funding, in other words through extra government investments.

By reason of ‘recognition and reward’ NWO places less emphasis on output such as publications in prestigious journals. It would rather appraise researchers on the basis of a ‘narrative CV’. That is the wrong direction, in the opinion of the 95 researchers, who talk of an “essay competition”. NWO should focus on research, they believe, and not on other talent. “And yes, there are good researchers and less good researchers. And yes, this is reflected partially in measurable, internationally accepted output indicators.”

Online
In the meantime, NWO has put the memorandum online, because ScienceGuide supposedly summarised it poorly. The research funding organisation also stresses (in Dutch) that no decisions have yet been made. They want to know what others think about topics such as researchers’ CVs, the role of NWO in talent policy and the relationship between the talent programme and European research programmes. “These are open questions as far as NWO is concerned.”

The young scientists are not the only ones who have doubts over ‘recognition and reward’. On Monday, top researcher Hans Clevers, former president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, warned of the “disastrous consequences” of ‘recognition and reward’.

HOP, Bas Belleman
Translation: Taalcentrum-VU