The decline of research

This post is concerned with something that is rather old news, but as the measure it discusses is going to be effectuated soon, it is still rather topical.

Since several years, the Netherlands has a minister of Education who is a scientist himself, and a pretty good one at that. His name is Ronald Plasterk, and for a long time he was a professor of molecular genetics and headed a research laboratory. When he took up his new job, I thought this would be a good thing as we would finally have a minister of Education who would understand what science really is about. And actually, up to a point I am quite happy with him in his current role. But one of his most influential choices does not strike me as very prudent.

Plasterk wants to spend more money on research, and I applaud that. The Dutch record of investing in scientific research is appalling. The problem is that Plasterk does not get any extra money for research: he has to make shifts in his budget. And he has decided to shift 100 million euros from the university budgets, the so-called “first-money stream”, to the NWO budget. NWO is the Dutch organization that gets to distribute money for scientific research.

The reasoning behind this move seems to be the following. At universities, professors and their assistants and associates have to spend about 50% of their time on research. So the universities get research money, which they spend on their “old staff”, thereby leaving insufficient money for new talents. NWO distributes money on the basis of refereed research plans. Therefore, NWO funding has a better chance to land in the hands of young, promising researchers who have good plans, as opposed to first-money stream funding. Of course, moving money from the first-money stream to NWO means that the universities have to lose some staff, and the remaining staff gets to spend less time on research on first-money stream funding. However, the universities can simply get the money they lost back again by submitting plans to NWO.

This all sounds nice, but there are two huge faults in the reasoning which is behind the plan. I thought someone who has a university background would realize that, but Plasterk might have been too preoccupied with his laboratory work to really get to know the problems that face universities today.

The first fault is recognizing that university budgets have been decreasing at about the same rate that student numbers have been increasing. The net effect is that while, indeed, 50% of the staff’s time should be spent on research, in practice the situation is that the staff only gets to work on research in their spare time. Virtually all research at universities is done by PhD students, who, for the most part, are paid by money that was received from NWO. So, the staff reduction caused by Plasterk’s shift of money actually directly affects the quality of education.

The second fault is recognizing that one has to invest a significant amount of time (and thus money) to write plans that are needed to get funding from NWO. All things being equal, every plan submitted to NWO has about 20-30% chance to be accepted. Writing a plan to get, say, a project of 300K euros approved might easily take three full weeks of work. With the acceptance rates of NWO that means that the staff has to spend something like one or two man-months for every 100K euros of research money. Basically, 10-20% of money is flushed away on writing and defending plans.

Naturally, one might say that a good plan is needed before research is started anyway, but frankly, my experience is that the scientific contents of a plan might be written in a few days, while the rest of the writing time is spent on making the non-scientific details of the plan as perfect as possible, to get a chance of getting it through the referee process. You see, a plan that is rated “very good” by referees has little chance of being accepted; a rating of “excellent” is basically a requirement. I even had the rather sickening experience that a plan of mine, which I spent two full months on, was rated “excellent” and judged by the final assessment committee as “should certainly get the money”, and then was rejected because it had to compete with just too many plans which got the same rating. An NWO employee told me once that the quality of your plan gets you half the way to the money, the rest is just plain luck.

Make no mistake, I think that NWO is doing an excellent job. When I did get plans approved I got money that could be spent on research for almost the full 100%. NWO only does the bare minimum of meddling in projects. The refereeing process is done well, and NWO is clearly enthusiastic about research.

However, NWO simply does not have sufficient budget to do their job properly. Currently it has to reject far too many good plans, on which too much writing time is spent that should have been invested in research. Supplying NWO with more money is therefore a good thing. But shifting it from university budgets will be counter-productive: in the end, there will be less money spent on scientific research, and university education will suffer from an even greater lack of staff.


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