But then you don’t understand how interesting it is to head up an organisation that disburses nearly a billion euros annually in research funding, says Levi. “I have a fair knowledge of the academic world, but now I go to places I have never been before. Research in the field of social sciences and technology is new to me. In those disciplines they have different thought processes, there’s a different culture.”

What are those differences?

“How can I say this diplomatically? STEM researchers are proud people. They believe, rightly or wrongly, that they are among the best in the world and they want people to know it. The type of conversations you have with social scientists are entirely different. They say: we have to teach too much already and it’s only getting worse, nobody loves us, there’s not enough money…”

Researchers sometimes feel that NWO tends to lean towards STEM.

“At NWO we take those differences into account. Considering the scale of the open competition and available grants, we disburse roughly as much on STEM as on research in the humanities. But the latter disciplines are a lot bigger. It’s a tricky issue: in what respect are they actually bigger? In terms of the number of students and scientists or the importance of the research itself? We’re bad at that sort of discussion in the Netherlands. The allocation of funding is based largely on what has happened in the past and every attempt to change it founders on arguments that are intended mainly to defend established positions. I don’t know whether it will ever change. When it comes to the allocation, there are always people that think, this criterion doesn’t suit me so I’m against it.”

You managed the teaching hospitals of University College London. Was it any different in England?

“Oh God, no. On one occasion we discussed a new allocation model, but it was never about the model itself, only about the results. But in the Netherlands we aim for consensus: it goes ahead only if everyone is in favour. In England it’s the government that has the biggest say in what happens.”

Is it unwieldy, the way it happens here?

“I actually enjoy differences of opinion, because you can learn from one another. NWO is a bridge-builder. We never serve our own interests: all the money that comes in we pass on to others. But we have a lot of knowledge, which we use to bring parties together. For instance, in cooperation with others we have battled to get more government money for science and that has been hugely successful.”

Has enough money been made available?

“Yes, I think so. For the next ten years at least. And even if you doubled the current amount, I’m not sure that it would be worthwhile. Say that you suddenly gave the universities an extra 80 million. I don’t think they could spend it straight away. You need a plan and good people.”

Will the money help to ease the workload?

“A little bit, perhaps. I’m certain that the workload in the academic field is high, but that isn’t the best possible argument for spending money on it. Everyone has a high workload, including nurses and police officers. We don’t get the money for the workload but for knowledge and innovation. They are what is important in helping the Netherlands move forward.”

NWO sometimes gets the blame for the academic workload. Everyone is working overtime to write grant applications but the vast majority miss out.

“Workload is a catch-all term. It has more to do with ridiculous administration on outdated IT systems than with the number of hours worked. Or it’s about tasks that you simply don’t enjoy. You think, great, I’ll go and work at the university, I’ll do a bit of research and teaching. Then, out of the blue, you have to read through 300 theses in a weekend and write an application for research funding.”

But the stampede for NWO funding means that many researchers write their application for nothing.

“Yes, sometimes we can accept only 10 percent of the applications and naturally that isn’t effective. It’s a huge waste of researchers’ valuable time. But surely we aren’t the only ones to blame? You can do two things: get hold of more money or make fewer applications. There’s no other way round it.”

And indeed there is more money coming in.

“That’s great, but beware. If that money goes mainly to the universities, they will take on young people, who will probably think, you know what, I’m going to make an application to the Dutch Research Council. So we will get even more applications. That’s why the funding given to the universities needs to be in balance with the funding given to NWO, otherwise the problems won’t go away.”

Or you give NWO less money so that researchers no longer apply to the agency for funding.

“But NWO exists for a reason. We allocate money on the basis of quality and excellence. We also fund initiatives that are hard to implement at a single university. NWO works, and that’s something to treasure. But indeed, we would prefer to accept 20 to 25 percent of all the applications. That’s possible only with extra money.”

Or with fewer applications. Who could make sure that happens?

“We’re not going to seal up our letterbox. The universities ought to decide to send only the best research to NWO. That is definitely their intention but it rarely happens. They frequently don’t know what’s going on. Sometimes we point out to a vice-chancellor that the university is sending in rather a lot of applications. The usual answer is, I know nothing about that…”

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What is the root of the problem, in your view?

“The people at the university have an enormous teaching load and they have very little time for research. So their only option is NWO. That isn’t how we designed it. The basics have got out of control, one of the reasons being the large student numbers.”

To get the basics right, we want the universities to introduce ‘rolling grants’ with the extra money, a sort of working capital for researchers. The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences thinks it’s a good idea but you are sceptical about it.

“Not really, I can understand why. I have certainly been critical; after all, the world of science is getting that extra money because it’s supposedly good for society and the economy, so we have to live up to that. Otherwise the Court of Audit will one day issue a report saying that nothing has come of it.”

But the universities are not giving the money to spongers, are they?

“The danger is that with those rolling grants an entirely new bureaucratic circuit will be created within the universities, even though we already have a fantastic system for talent: NWO’s Veni, Vidi and Vici grants. You could opt to put money into that and allocate it on the basis of excellence. The universities don’t like me saying it, but why shouldn’t it be done? The money still goes to them, it’s just that they have a little less control over it.”

Some scientists doubt whether NWO is able to make a meaningful distinction between one good proposal and another. They advocate rewarding the very best proposals, filtering out the worst proposals and drawing lots for the rest of the grants.

“That stuff about drawing lots… You hear that argument mostly from people who don’t get grants themselves.”

It also comes from members of The Young Academy.

“Well, it easy for them to say, because they are generally already firmly in the saddle. And they never say, I’ll give my Vidi grant back, just raffle it off. Anyway, everyone is entitled to their opinion.”

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Surely you can’t dismiss such criticism as ‘talk’s cheap’ and ‘sour grapes’?

“Making a selection in the middle segment is harder than at the top and the bottom, that’s true. But you have to separate the wheat from the chaff: is this proposal above or below average? That’s our job, that’s what we’re there for. If our method is wrong, we have to improve it, but drawing lots would be the easy way out.”

Why is it so hard to discuss this? It has been a taboo topic at NWO for many years.

“We’re making a contribution to the scientific research into drawing lots for grants, but so far there’s no sign that it works better than making a distinction. It isn’t our own money, by the way, it’s the taxpayer’s. Up to now I haven’t had many signals that society is ready for raffling off tax revenue. Just imagine if they were to do that with tricky court cases! I’ve never heard a judge say, we have drawn lots, you will have to go to prison for ten years.”

Critics say that in practice it has long since been a lottery.

“All the decisions we take are reasoned, so it isn’t a lottery. Maybe in a few years’ time we will discover that we are actually not able to make a good distinction, but I can’t see that happening anytime soon.”

NWO grants are rather important for scientists’ careers. Too important, according to some. They feel you ought to be able to forge a career in another way.

“Universities need to strike the right balance between teaching, science, leadership and social merit. They call it ‘recognition and reward’. But NWO looks only at science. The real question is how we do it. We used to take mainly publications and citations into account. That was nice and easy, you could link all your figures to it, but it was too one-sided.”

What was wrong with it?

“You are then in a situation where people divide their publications into three parts so as to make the list longer. And let’s suppose that a hundred of your colleagues cite your article, what does that actually say? Maybe they all say that it’s worthless. So we have to look for something more sensible. As far as I’m concerned, you don’t have to say that you’re good at patient care or at implementing research results, because that’s not our concern, but…”

But you still ask about the potential applications?

“A little. Whether it could result in a patent, for instance. But for me it’s not so interesting to know that someone has started their own business. Needless to say, you can always involve knowledge utilisation in science, just like the aspiration for open science. Let’s say that you publish something in a magazine like Nature; that’s great, but are you aware that almost nobody can read it because it’s behind a paywall? And then what can you do with it?”

Some top scientists, such as former President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences Hans Clevers, fear that ‘recognition and reward’ will harm the Netherlands’ position in the scientific world.

“But that’s a misconception. That discussion is going on in other countries too. It’s an illusion that we’re in the lead in this. Also in countries such as the UK and Norway you are no longer judged on the impact factor of your articles alone.”

It takes time to get used to new things.

“I’m not saying that NWO gets everything right. For a while, we asked researchers to send in a ‘narrative CV’, in which you don’t use lists and figures, and not all of us were happy with that. We got criticism from our own selection committees: a CV like that is hard to verify, they can say whatever they fancy. So we’re moving over to an evidence-based CV. You can still say how good you are, but it has to be objectifiable. If you’re at the top of your field of expertise, you’re sure to have been invited at some stage to give a lecture at a major congress. And if you’re especially good at outreach, where can we find evidence of it?”

Nederland Den Haag 20210409: Marcel Levi  (foto Harmen de Jong).
Marcel Levi. Image credit: Harmen de Jong

So back again to ‘what gets measured gets done’?

“Measuring is fine, of course. What we have done in the past is to measure only one thing. What we want to achieve is to measure ten things.”

Isn’t that the perspective of medical scientists? They can always illustrate what they are good at.

“Indeed, a lot of the grumbles come from medical science. They can say that they are working on a cure for a particular form of cancer and then it sounds interesting. Mediaeval theatre can be awesome, but how is it relevant to society? What will the research achieve? Some researchers might regard the question as insulting, but isn’t it reasonable for the taxpayer to ask, what good is that to me? The answer ‘shut your mouth, give me the money and don’t interfere’ is inappropriate in this day and age. You occasionally come across a fossil that says something like that, but nowadays it’s very rare.”

The Dutch Research Council is coming up with a new strategy. What can we expect?

“It will be quite an ambitious document. We set out our plans as a funding provider and as a bridge-builder in the world of research, as well as a provider of top-quality research via our institutions. And we will definitely not take our foot off the gas in our open science policy. Of course, we also consider how we can make it easier to apply for a grant, making it less time-consuming. At the moment, researchers have to jump through all kinds of hoops and answer questions on issues such as their institution’s diversity policy. It would be better if we talked to the institution itself about that. And some of the questions need to be asked only of people who actually get the grant. What we do consider important is that they write a communication plan – and we set requirements for that – but in fact it doesn’t matter in terms of evaluating the research proposal.”

The simpler you make the application process, the more researchers will apply for a grant and then the chance of success is further reduced.

He smiles. “But it really doesn’t help if we make it extra difficult either. In an ideal world you wouldn’t be able to simply send in an application. The universities would have to make a preselection, but as I said before, that won’t happen. Sometimes their policy states literally that you have to get a Dutch Research Council grant if you want to make a career for yourself. No wonder that researchers do everything they can to get one. It makes the system too brutal, with acceptance percentages of as little as 10 percent. The opposite ought to be the case: you’re allowed to apply for a grant only if you have reached a certain grade. And it ought not to be a personal disqualification if on one occasion you fail to get a grant.”

What will happen in the years ahead in terms of how much funding is allocated to frontier research and how much to thematic research?

“We will be looking for a balance. You sometimes hear the criticism that there’s no money left for frontier research, but there’s just as much money as a few years ago. There are more applicants, however.”

But how do you want to make the allocation?

“We want fewer small programmes, not ‘a little money here and there’. We also want our programmes to be more in line with European grants. Are there any evident blank spots or is there an overlap? We now have a lot of recipients of Vidi grants who also get a European consolidator grant a week later. Is that what we want? You could ask them to give back the Vidi grant. That would show solidarity with researchers who have missed out on a grant. In any event, we want to get that debate going.”

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