This measure – which was intended to reduce the high volume of applicationsreceived by NWO every year – seems to be taking effect. Since the embedding guarantee was introduced in 2018, the total number of submitted applications has dropped by more than one quarter compared to 2017, according to the evaluation.
And there are other benefits besides in the view of NWO President Gielen. “Under the old rules, universities occasionally told Vidi grant recipients after five years of hard work, ‘Sorry, the funds have run out and we don’t have a job for you’. These researchers are experienced scientists, often in their 40s and with a family to support. I think this is unacceptable. I hope that the embedding guarantee will be able to prevent new instances of this scenario. What’s more, this safeguards the continuity of the performed research, which can be continued after the expiration of the grant.”
With this new approach, Gielen lays the ball in the universities’ court. “As NWO, we were often accused of influencing universities’ HR policies too much. That’s not how I see it. Rather, the universities allowed their decision whether or not to offer someone a permanent position to depend on our decision.” Now universities can choose those researchers whom they find the most promising ‘at the gate’. “This enables them to nominate candidates who align with the university’s profile.” He hopes that the overall quality of the submitted proposals will improve now that institutions are required to choose which candidates are offered an embedding guarantee.
According to The Young Academy(DJA), many universities don’t even review the proposals’ contents. The only people allowed to submit an application are researchers with an open-ended contract. What’s your response to this criticism?
“As NWO, we never kept tabs on which applicants have a permanent position. To evaluate the new scheme, we put a lot of effort into determining this for the 2017-2018 period. This shows that the share of grant applicants with a permanent contract has risen by 12 percentage points compared to last year. We can’t say yet whether this is a one-time or structural increase, since every year you see natural fluctuations.
“While I’m happy that The Young Academy keeps us on our toes, their criticism actually relates to the universities rather than NWO. They’re effectively saying that the universities’ HRM policies are too conservative and cautious. What’s more, I too believe universities could be a bit more forthcoming with the issue of embedding guarantees. After all, they have enough vacancies.”
“Radboud University is taking a different approach. Any researcher who applies for a Vidi there is offered an embedding guarantee – regardless of whether the grant is awarded or not. They keep a close eye on which positions become available and actively seek out interesting candidates – including beyond their existing organisation. They have a clear focus on quality in their selections.”
The Young Academy also put forward that researchers who had worked abroad no longer stand a chance of landing a Vidi grant. According to your evaluation, the share of Vidi applications coming in from foreign institutions has remained virtually the same over the past two years: 0.8 and 0.9 percent respectively. Are DJA’s fears unfounded?
“The group in question has always been small – on average, around 3 percent of the total number of applicants. At present, we haven’t observed a decrease compared to 2017. But this is the initial measurement – we need to wait and see what the results are in the longer term.”
Another point of criticism is that researchers with exceptionally innovative ideas are less likely to land a grant because they lack the necessary connections within a university organisation. How do the embedding guarantee and the innovation impulse policy relate to one another?
“These grants are mainly intended to give people an opportunity to set up a line of research and build up an academic career. The idea of a lonely scientist working away in his garret room on some brilliant innovation is quite dated. We work in teams nowadays.”
The line of research does need to fit within a university’s profile. In a broadly supported parliamentary motion, GroenLinks warnedthat the embedding guarantee could put pressure on academic freedom in cases where candidates and their dean don’t see eye to eye. Minister Van Engelshoven responded that in such cases, researchers could always submit their proposal to a different university. Isn’t that easier said than done?
“Each university in the Netherlands has its own focus areas. If you have this fantastic idea that doesn’t align with the research conducted at your own institution, it makes sense to contact a university that is active in the same field. Indeed, joining a team of colleagues with whom you can work together can only lead to a stronger proposal. And if you’re a good researcher, I can’t see why you couldn’t manage.”
What’s your take on the alternative suggested by The Young Academy, in which everyone can apply for a grant, but researchers are only awarded the funding after arranging an embedding guarantee?
“I’m not in favour of this idea right now. It doesn’t really solve anything. It doesn’t reduce the number of applications coming in, and it continues to be a plus during the application’s review if someone has already struck a deal with a university beforehand. I see no reason to roll back the new guidelines at this point. That would be wishy-washy.”