A month ago, all applications to research financier NWO came to a standstill because of a hack. What does this delay mean for researchers? Delta asked them.

A month ago, all applications to research financier NWO came to a standstill because of a hack. What does this delay mean for researchers?

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On 14 February, the NWO website announced: ‘None of the applications running on the NWO network are currently accessible. This means among other things that the email addresses of NWO are not accessible. The website NWO.nl has not been affected by the hack.’

In principle, NWO communicates directly with researchers who have submitted applications. But after the hack, NWO staff could not be reached and the website was the only source of information.

The TU Delft Valorisation Centre, like advisors at other universities, is kept informed by NWO, says Marion Stenneke of the Research Funding Unit. During the hack, the Valorisation Centre functioned more as a source of information and a point of contact for researchers than usual. The Centre brought Delta into contact with three of them.

Almost a father
Dr Emile Chappin is an energy researcher at the TPM Faculty. He applied for a Vidi grant to develop a different way of using simulation models for the energy transition. This would make it possible to better assess the robustness of energy policies.

What does the delay mean to you?`
“I was supposed to defend my application to the committee today. The appointment is marked in purple in my diary because it was one of the most important appointments for my research. Having the defence cancelled is very unpleasant. I finished my rebuttal – the written defence to the Committee‘s reviews – but I couldn’t submit it because of the hack. I have no idea what is going to happen. The tricky thing is that I am soon to become a father. I thought it would be nice to have the application behind me before the birth. It would be a shame if the arrangements shifted to my first month of fatherhood.”

‘I am also not that worried that someone will run off with my proposal’

Does this create extra stress?
“I don‘t find it that stressful, but the uncertainty remains. There is no communication at all from NWO. Maybe they can't communicate, but I would have liked it to be different. The website states that everything is at a standstill. I emailed my response before the deadline, but I haven't heard a thing. It’s astonishing that such an important organisation can be shut down for so long.”

NWO data has been hacked and may be made public. Does that worry you?
“I did have to provide my email address and name, but no proof of identity. Identity fraud is an important issue, of course, but I'm not really worried about it in this case. In terms of content, I am also not that worried that someone will run off with my proposal. I am in favour of open science anyway.”

50 words
Dr Eleonora Brembilla works in the Building Physics and Services group at the Faculty of Architecture. She has a Veni application underway for the design of a system that tracks how people use electric light and sun blinds to create the most pleasant lit environment. Measurements on this typically come from laboratories, but not yet from daily practice.

What does the delay mean to you?
“I was only able to submit the preliminary application. As the response would normally be coming in about now, we don‘t know. There are so many uncertainties at the moment that this is just one of them. I am used to planning very flexibly. It’s not a matter of life and death, but it would be nice to know if I can continue.”

‘My email address and telephone number are also given in every web shop’

Does this create extra stress?
“I’m generally not that stressed. I am a little worried about the next deadline though. Assuming my proposal is accepted, of course, otherwise I'll be done soon. If accepted, I will have to submit the full proposal in May. So, the longer it takes, the less time I have to write the application.”

Are you concerned about privacy of any leaked data?
“No. If you have submitted a detailed application with sensitive information, I can imagine that an information leak is annoying and worrisome. My pre-application was only 50 words long – you can't get much out of that. The information on my CV is largely public anyway. And my email address and telephone number are also given in every web shop. So that information can come from anywhere.”

Safety of public services
Dr Gonçalo Correia (CiTG) has an application ready for NWO’s Open Technology Call. Under the name E-power, it concerns a research plan for shared electric transport between the major cities in the Randstad. Their flexibility makes shared cars better able to cope with an increase in numbers despite the limitations of the electricity grid. Gonçalo wanted to submit the application on behalf of a number of colleagues but ran into a blocked NWO website.

What does the delay mean to you?
“I sent the document and filled in all the questions, so I hope they still have the information. I wanted to add two more letters of support, but I can't do it yet. That does cause a bit of stress, yes. The NWO website states that activities will resume on 22 March, but what does that mean for the assessment process?”

‘I should maybe start being more careful’

What is the information provided till now like?
“I received an email from NWO about the hack. It seemed annoying, but not very serious. It was only last week that I heard from colleagues that the hack was a criminal hostage-taking operation. That did worry me. If this can happen to NWO, what does that mean for the security of public services in the Netherlands? I’m not paranoid by nature and I do store things in cloud servers, but when I heard this, I thought I should maybe start being more careful.”

Are you concerned about the privacy of any leaked data?
“I don‘t like my email address and phone number to be spread around. On the other hand, the email inbox is under constant attack anyway. My phone number is not that interesting. I’m not too worried about the proposal itself. It is so specific that really only the researchers involved can carry it out.”

Resumption in sight
In its most recent message, NWO announced that the grant process will be resumed on Monday 22 March. The research financier will then present a new schedule for applications and reopen the application system. In principle, the deadlines will shift by five weeks from the time they were planned. NWO concludes the message with: ‘NWO regrets the situation that the criminals have caused to applicants, committee members, referees and others involved, but is pleased that the grant process can be resumed soon.’