Poot is a researcher in gen regulation at Erasmus MC. “Around seven years ago, I became involved in research into autism. Through gen regulation, we can now better understand why people get autism. We’ve found that it seems to be nearly 100 percent genetic, so in principle you can tell from someone’s DNA whether they will be autistic. The earliest we currently discover that is at the age of 3. With our research, we hope to be able to establish autism much sooner via genetics and perhaps start behavioural therapy much earlier.” Poot is thus a good example of how fundamental research leads to social benefit. Which is one of his pet subjects: fundamental research is socially at least as relevant as applied research.

Since last year, there have been various pilots in the Netherlands with Recognition and Rewards. Utrecht University leads the field, but Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB) already works with various career paths, so that people wishing to focus on education, governance or impact can also make a career more easily.

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For some time now, the Dutch Research Council (NOW) has no longer been using impact factors of journals and H indexes in evaluations and has introduced the narrative CV, in which the scholar can present many more competencies than just publications. Why do you feel that’s a bad idea?

“For scientists like myself, it is very important that we are internationally competitive. What you are now seeing is that scientific criteria are becoming blurred, which means you no longer select the best scientific researchers and there is less money for the best scholarship. That’s a difficult discussion in the Netherlands; we want to keep everyone on side. But if the best 30 percent can no longer compete with Harvard and China, then as a country you fall behind.”

You say that you are not against Recognition and Rewards as a principle. So what do you think is good about it?

“Because I feel it’s logical to have a career path for other activities than science, and it’s not useful to only be assessed on research. But if you do choose research, you must apply the international research criteria. I don’t know any other way.”

Recognition and Rewards aims to achieve more inclusion in scholarship. Certain people – often we talk about women, but it can be broader – allegedly have fewer opportunities for a good career in science. That naturally applies here at Erasmus MC too.

“My wife is a scholar. Having children is hugely time consuming. That’s had an impact on me, but even more on her. But you don’t need Recognition and Rewards to compensate that, it can be much simpler. When assessing an application, if you look at the number of publications over the years of research time, an important criterion, remember the number of children. For each child, deduct two years of research, for example. That again creates a more level playing field. Clearly: you’ve had children, and that’s compensated. NWO already preferentially selects women to redress the balance, fine. This can all be achieved without ‘working on inclusion’. But lowering the standards so that woman have more opportunity? To me, that’s discrimination.”

Numerical compensation does mean that you are still selecting the ‘best’ scholar based on impact factors. And yet Recognition and Rewards is about creating a different mix in a team.

“The question is: who determines the mix of such a team? As research leader, I feel that I determine the best way to do my research. Why would an NWO or a manager in an ivory tower decide for me? If I don’t get results, everything stops, and I don’t get any more money. There are also other ways to offer an opportunity to groups that miss out: give them their own money. There are competitions for that at the NWO, like Mosaic for people with a migration background.”

Research into implicit bias has shown that people do get access to science, but subsequently don’t feel at home. Because they then end up in such a team and there are all men like Raymond Poot. As a Muslim woman or first-generation student from Rotterdam-Zuid, you might feel uncomfortable.

“Select the best of those students and give them their own money, so that they create their own job. That’s the crux. You may be right that it can be hard, but if you give people money and make them independent, you make them attractive for universities because they bring their own money with them. They get power over the system. I feel that’s much better than being hired as token member of a minority group because there needs to be diversity in the team.”

What you then forget, in my opinion, is that someone freshly out of university with a master’s degree is not yet ready to be an independent researcher. Before the NWO gives you a research grant, you need to get your PhD and make a career among the white men.

“Our best students here are often Muslims. They are very capable of applying for a grant themselves. You can tell them beforehand that it won’t work, but I don’t know if that’s true. But giving individual money doesn’t seem to be what they want in Recognition and Rewards. They want team science. Another idea of team science is that people with facilitating capacities get a better position. But I just don’t see how that works. They then remain dependent on the person applying for the grant. Park people who have a skill that is very useful for scholars (such as generating impact, ed.) in the university itself. Give them money for those facilities via public funding (subsidy from the Ministry, ed.). Then every scholar will say: that person is important and must be financed, because I’m dependent on it. You don’t necessarily need to set up team science for that.”

If those impact factors and suchlike are abandoned, why do you think the level of Dutch science would fall?

“Impact factors and rankings are not ideal as criteria, but they really give an indication of quality and impact. So if you remove the factors that are important for selecting on quality, the result will be that you get lower quality scholarship. And that is very important, because it’s tax money. We are among the top five in the world. What do those rankings mean, they ask. But what do you want to use instead?”

The idea is obviously that Recognition and Rewards will still select on quality but based on wider criteria, other qualities. Perhaps less quantifiable than impact factors.

“These are two different discussions. If you want to facilitate other career paths, I say: great. But you’re talking about research, so you need to select good researchers. That’s no mystery. We’ve been doing that for thirty years via the NWO. And the result is that we are the top five in the world, which speaks for itself.”

Raymond Poot’s office has a view of the Euromast. Image credit: Alisa Mahaletska

Isn’t that a circular argument? If as NOW, you don’t constantly select on high impact factors and that the result is subsequently that you score high on rankings that sort on high impact factors?

“Yes, I often hear that, and I’ve thought about it. In Europe, you have the European Research Council, an organisation that also provides funding. They purely select on the scientific quality of the scholar and proposal. And when you look at patents per euro, ERC does better than European funds that select on social impact or industrial application. So the conclusion is: if you select solely on quality, you ultimately do best on another important and independent indicator, namely how many patents result from it. If you want to calculate on social impact, patents may not be enough as an indicator, but you do get a pretty good impression. Particularly because you don’t select on it beforehand.”

Doesn’t that mainly apply to certain areas of science, which apply for lots of patents, and not to other areas? For example, far fewer patents are applied for in social sciences than in the medical world.

“Correct, it only says something about the field in which lots of patents are applied for, which mainly relates to scientists. But: that probably means that at the ERC there is more social benefit for social sciences too, it just doesn’t translate into the number of patents.”

So that can’t be measured. You could also think that it tends to be the scientists who apply for lots of patents, so also lots of patents per euro, and those are also the typically high-impact research projects. It’s all connected.

“Yes, but it’s also clear that the number of patents per invested euro falls if we no longer check impact factors among the scientists. That will reduce your social benefit. For the humanities and social studies, I feel they could do it differently. But the story now is that the scientists also need to stop counting impact factors, publications and citations. Let’s do it in the way that generates the best scholarship and the most social benefit.”

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