‘We are training too many researchers’

The Dutch science funding body NWO wants universities to submit a selection of their research proposals, so their chances of success go up from around 15 percent to at least 25 percent. The NWO hopes this will be a way of containing the run on research funding. Thom Kuyper, personal professor of Soil Quality, thinks…
Albert Sikkema

© Joris Schaap

The NWO has said that, for personal research grants, from now on universities must guarantee employment. And the professor must submit a statement that the proposal matches his academic field. Will that help reduce the number of proposals? ‘No. Professors will always support a good research proposal and can always come up with a great story as to why it fits their line of research. So it will have no effect. And then the Executive Board has to make a selection of the proposals. Currently, candidates feel disappointed when the NWO rejects excellent proposals. Soon they will be cross with their own university when it stops them from competing. What is more, you’ll have to set up yet another committee for that.’

More bureaucracy.‘Exactly, and without removing the cause of the problem. The pressure to submit research proposals for NWO grants will remain the same, because we have trained 10 people for every vacancy at our university. And how did that happen? We are expected to win a lot of grants. Thanks to perverse incentives, we have become addicted to the PhD system.’

What is the solution? ‘I think the funding should be done differently: more long-term government funding, and less money per PhD position. Then the permanent staff could start doing research themselves again, instead of having research done by PhD candidates. And the NWO will automatically have fewer research proposals coming in.’

But how do you select the PhD researchers whose proposals are submitted? ‘Perhaps you could assess them during the process of their PhD work, and at the end say to some of them: you are not so suited to research, and your chances of getting tenure at the university are very slight, so we are not supporting your proposal. That’s tough, but unavoidable.’

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