Extensions vs. careers

NWO is the Dutch organization which the government supplies with funds to distribute to scientists for their research. One of the programs that NWO runs is the “Vernieuwingsimpuls” (VI), which supplies big personal grants to scientists at different stages of their careers. The three programs in the VI are (with increasing grant sizes) VENI, VIDI, and VICI. These programs have a time limit associated with them, related to when someone got their PhD. VENI has to be applied for within 3 years after getting a PhD, VIDI within 8 years, and VICI within 15 years. These time limits are extended for biological mothers. This extension amounts to 18 months per child, for a maximum total of 5 years. The reason that NWO states for providing mothers with extensions is to allow them to spend extra time on taking care of their children.

Very recently, NWO decided to also allow the partners of the biological mothers to get extensions to the time limits, to the tune of 6 months per child. According to NWO, due to changes in societal opinions, they decided to stimulate a “more balanced distribution of professional and parental tasks between the parents” by also giving the partners an extension.

My question with this decision is: “why do partners only get 6 months, and biological mothers 18 months?” Is that really stimulating a better balance of parental tasks between the parents? If two young scientists get two kids, and one of these young scientists gets 4 years to apply for a VENI grant, and the other 6 years, who of them is under the biggest pressure to get that grant application in? Who will need to spend more time on advancing their career? The only way to ensure that these young parents can distribute their parental tasks better is to supply both of them with the same extension. NWO may think they are being progressive with their decision, but in the end they are only putting a spotlight on there being more pressure on the partner (usually the father) to advance their career than on the mother. And once one partner’s career is advancing while the other one’s career is lagging behind, when a decision needs to be taken who will spend more time at home and who will spend more time at work, it is obvious which way that decision is likely to go.

Overall, I wonder whether these extensions, especially with a length of 18 months per child, are a good idea anyway. By giving these extensions, it takes off the pressure to get grant applications in. The main way to progress one’s scientific career is to get grants. My experience is that working in science is a challenging job with a lot of tasks. There is usually little time to spend on writing a grant proposal, which may easily take months of work. There is always a high-priority task which takes precedence, and putting in a grant proposal only becomes high priority when the deadline looms. Adding 18 months per child to those deadlines basically means that a young mother is stimulated to stop advancing her career for several years.

Having a career means that you have to make certain choices. These extensions are an easy excuse to choose to put one’s career on hold, because “you get extra time to restart your career.” Unfortunately, after taking a considerable pause in advancing one’s career, it tends to be hard to get it moving again. The extensions may therefore very well be a prime cause in mothers dropping out of the rat race and deciding that they do not really need to go for the higher-level positions. Not that there is anything wrong with deciding that a nice balance between home life and work is preferable over sacrificing one’s home life for a career. That is a perfectly valid choice. My problem is that the extensions which NWO provides, which are evidently meant to allow mothers to have a home life without sacrificing their careers, may actually stimulate mothers to give up on their careers.

Moreover, I wish to point out that there are many reasons why someone’s work life may suffer from a set-back. Wanting to stay home with a new-born child for a while is only one of them. But how about going through a divorce? Changing jobs? Having to take care of an ailing family member? Being a single parent who is not the biological mother? Wanting to take a sabbatical? Needing health recovery after an accident? Most people with a job find that they sometimes get into personal situations which need them to put career advancement on hold for a while. What makes young mothers such an exception that they should be richly compensated for choosing to stay home with their children?

I am definitely not against time limits on submitting grant proposals. Time limits ensure that people submit these proposals at the “right time” in their careers, and, in particular, heed people against giving too much priority to tasks other than writing strong grant proposals, which harms them in the long run. However, automatically extending the time limits for specific groups of people is rather arbitrary and may very well be harmful to the careers of many of these people.

I am not opposed to giving people extensions to the time limits, but I would not make them automatic (and not this long). Simply let people apply for extensions and let them state their reasons for wanting one. This takes off the arbitrary edge, while also putting up a barrier for making use of extensions. Such a barrier is a necessity, as it is a harmful illusion to think that these extensions allow a parent to have a full home and social life without damaging their career.

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