Belle Derks Image credit: Milette Raats

The past few years, researchers’ chances of landing an 800,000-euro Vidi research grant have become very slim indeed. To reduce the large number of applications that come in, funding agency NWO introduced the so-called ‘embedding guarantee’. This means that candidates can only take a shot at Vidi funding after securing a guarantee from a university or research institute that they can work there if they are awarded the grant.

The measure had an immediate effect: the number of applications has dropped by 25% since its adoption. But NOW’s decision could also count on criticism. The Young Academy, an association of relatively young researchers associated with the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), decided to hold a survey to evaluate the impact of the new measure. The questionnaire was completed by 81 scientists, of whom 25 were not allowed to apply for a grant. In the case of the other respondents, it is not yet clear whether or not they were awarded a Vidi grant.

Belle Derks (Chair) of The Young Academy: “We decided on this study after complaints came in from researchers who had been barred from applying. Since we didn’t want to base our conclusions solely on the information provided by researchers who had contacted us, we set up a general survey.”

the pond at the Erasmus Pavilion (2018)

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What was the most remarkable finding?

“That most universities don’t make any kind of substantive selection when reviewing researchers’ Vidi grant proposals. ‘Do you have a permanent contract? Great: then you’re allowed to submit an application.’ Other researchers usually aren’t. I find the fact that the decision isn’t based on substantive criteria remarkable to say the least. This way, securing research funding becomes an insiders’ game, in which only those researchers who’ve already gained a foothold have a chance of winning. While researchers with a temporary contract, but also scientists who have taken risks in their career – by working abroad for a few years, for example – miss out.”

NWO hoped that this measure would encourage universities to make a stricter selection beforehand. So this hope has proven false?

“Yes, because this hardly happens. Most universities pay no heed to the chances of a proposal being awarded a grant. It’s an automated process. Occasionally, we even see that Vidi applications are a compulsory part of a tenure track [a form of employment in which researchers need to prove themselves worthy of a permanent contract with a set period of time, eds.]. It doesn’t even have to be about quality or eligibility.”


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Nevertheless, there are fewer applications than before. And that was NWO’s objective right?

“Well, yes… but not for the right reasons. There may be fewer Vidi applications, but only because fewer people are allowed to submit a proposal. It’s a smaller pond basically. As a result, a number of outstanding scientists with very solid research proposals aren’t even given a chance. We find this concerning, since eventually it will affect the quality of science in general.”

But if you have a good proposal, surely you must be able to find a university that is willing to offer you an embedding guarantee if you bring along a big bag of money?

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But it’s easier said than done. Universities are risk-averse and tend to gamble on people who are already ‘embedded’. Imagine a department with four non-tenured researchers – each of whom is given an embedding guarantee to submit his or her Vidi grant application. The faculty would be putting itself at risk, because if all four were awarded a grant, it wouldn’t be able to keep them all on in the long term. Particularly in the case of the Humanities, researchers weren’t able to submit an application because the education programmes can’t absorb all the extra lecturers.”

The Vidi grant is part of the so-called ‘Innovation Impulse’. How does the embedding guarantee relate to innovation?

“Scientists who are working on research that hasn’t been done yet in the Netherlands or who have very innovative ideas run less chance of landing a grant. The Innovation Impulse grants are intended to encourage the development of new projects outside routine lines of research, but this is actually more difficult than ever. Of course you can find researchers working on innovative programmes at our universities too, but this kind of innovation is no longer coming from outsiders.”

Which alternatives would The Young Academy see for the embedding guarantee?

“If it were up to us, the measure would be scrapped immediately. While we don’t have a drop-in solution, at least a preselection like the one used in the procedure for Veni grants doesn’t exclude researchers with a temporary contract. And researchers who run less of a chance don’t have to waste time submitting a detailed funding application.

“In addition, NWO could say that everyone is allowed to apply for a grant, but that you are only paid out after getting an embedding guarantee from a university. But of course that becomes a bit easier when you’re bringing along 800,000 euro – even for outsiders.”

Have you already discussed the results of the survey with NWO?

“Yes, we’ve been in close touch with NWO on this matter and have shared our concerns. They want to take the time to study the impact of this measure. Which I can understand, but we feel it’s taking too long. This sample survey shows that the side effects are so harmful that we should take action now. We’re worried that if we don’t, an entire generation of researchers will actually be left by the wayside.”