In a policy letter published on Tuesday, CPB recommended that NWO try a few new things in the distribution of its research funds. By implementing just a few basic changes, CPB said, NWO could considerably reduce the amount of pressure placed on applicants, which would also reduce the costs associated with the applications.

Because the costs are significant. CPB estimates that the distribution of €40 million’s worth of research funds costs an additional €9.5 million, if you include the amount of time spent by applicants on drawing up proposals, and the amount of time spent by committees assessing said proposals.

Reduced number of applications

According to CPB, the most basic change would be getting rid of deadlines for research grant applications. Judging from experiences reported by foreign organisations, this will reduce the number of applications by 50 percent. It seems likely that it will mostly reduce the number of applications submitted by less motivated researchers, as they need the pressure imposed by a deadline to be able to complete their proposals.

Another option would be to preselect likely candidates on the basis of their CVs. Academics with poor CVs are hardly ever granted research funding, so perhaps NWO should not even bother reading their proposals.

Granting agency NWO has itself realised that something needs to be done about the huge competition for research grants and has been considering changes to the system for a while now. According to NWO Chairman Stan Gielen, universities themselves need to provide more guidance to their academics. “I know that some universities seem to believe in the old, ‘Yes, you can fail, but you’ll never know if you don’t try,” Gielen said last autumn. However, they are quite capable of determining which academics actually stand a chance of being awarded a grant.

Mixed experiences

Getting rid of deadlines is not one of the plans NWO has been considering, but the granting agency is familiar with the concept. “We have mixed experiences with it,” NWO spokesperson Olivier Morot explained. “It works best when there is a steady level of funding. Scientists must be confident that there will still be money for them, say, two years from now. And they must then stand a reasonable chance of actually having their applications honoured.”

NWO is familiar with the other suggestions made in CPB’s letter, as well. For instance, selecting likely grant recipients on the basis of their CVs is one of the ideas NWO will further explore in the coming months.

NWO has already rejected a few proposals. For instance, CPB suggested that judges would be used only to select the strongest and weakest candidates. The members of the committee would not have to waste any time on selecting medium-ranked academics whose CVs and competencies are all very similar if a draw were implemented for this group. However, NWO is not in favour of a draw. In its opinion, the committee would only gain a little bit of time if this proposal were implemented, and the loss of quality would be significant.

More radical

CPB’s letter contains another idea that is even more radical: NWO could conduct an experiment involving a system in which academics would distribute all the available money themselves, with all applicants receiving a budget, about half of which they would then have to donate to a colleague. The idea behind this suggestion is that scientists generally have a pretty good idea of who deserves funding, and that they don’t need the ‘applications circus’ to have this decided for them. But this suggestion, too, has been more or less shot down by NWO. NWO Chairman Gielen promised that a few PhD students would be asked to look into the idea, but that was all he would say on the subject.

Either way, CPB has warned that any experiment involving a new distribution method for research funds must be designed carefully, and must always involve a control group. For instance, if NWO were to experiment with abolishing submission deadlines, it should implement two application programmes – one with a deadline, and the other without a deadline. This would provide a useful insight into the consequences of the change.