Calmness and space is what Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf wishes to bring to academia. His ideas include making starting grants of 300 thousand euros available to all new assistant professors with a fixed contract. There would also be incentive grants of varying amounts for other scholars. In total, the Cabinet has allocated 300 million euros per year to the scheme.

But the criticism wasn’t long in coming. The Young Academy and WOinActie, for instance, commented that this isn’t the way to reduce the workload. All it does is intensify the battle for money. The universities weren’t exactly thrilled about the plans either: why weren’t they allowed to award the grants to groups instead of individuals?

The minister formed a committee out of his worst critics and various administrators. They were to give their opinion on the distribution of the grants. As they took longer than planned, questions were raised about their ability to reach an agreement.

Professor at Leiden University and WOinActie representative Remco Breuker wrote on Twitter that the work was ‘complex and challenging, both because of the toughness of the matter and the abundance of perspectives within the committee’. “That we were able to turn this abundance to our advantage is really owing to our chair, who did a phenomenal job listening and analysing. I’ve grown allergic to leadership, but this kind of leadership I could get behind.”

The chair in question was Bert Weckhuysen, professor of Catalysis, Energy and Sustainability at Utrecht University. He previously wrote a recommendation on ‘rolling grants’, on which the starting and incentive grants are based, for the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Are you happy with the starting and incentive grants that the minister has created?

“You’re not the first to ask. Look, for the rolling grants we had a different budget in mind: about twice as much as the 300 million available now. Not that 300 million isn’t a considerable sum of money! But it just means things work differently.”

The recommendation has arrived with the distribution already ongoing. Doesn’t that mean you’re too late?

“The Cabinet wanted to distribute the money as quickly as possible. But then the question arose: how are we actually going to do that? That’s why our committee was set up. After all, it concerns a completely new instrument. We’re familiar with the sector plans and funding via the Dutch Research Council (NWO). The dynamics here are different.”

Your committee missed the first deadline and asked for an extension of three months. Why?

“We needed the extension to be a good committee. We first talked a lot without drawing conclusions. As the chair, I wanted to prevent the members from thinking that they needed to impose their opinions right away. They were all given a chance to say what drives them and what they believe in. We really listened to each other in order to make the best joint choices.”

What were your points of departure?

“We prioritised independent research and reducing the workload. If you make your choices based on content – which research gets a grant and which doesn’t? – you get all these individual little Dutch Research Councils within the universities. You don’t want that. We wanted to create as few new structures and distribution systems as possible. There’s already a faculty board and a participation council, so let things run through them. The lower in the organisation the employee, the better their insight into the workload.”

You’re also advocating a strict separation between starting and incentive grants. What do you mean by this?

“Most universities aren’t receiving enough money to award a starting grant to each assistant professor they hire. Some universities used the incentive grant budget to bridge the deficit. Although we understand this, it’s not good to undermine the incentive grants. One shouldn’t mix the amounts allocated to the starting and incentive grants. If you do, you’re not giving the system a chance to come to fruition. Pay full attention to both grants.”

The younger universities in particular are getting a relatively larger share of the 300 million euros than the rest. This is the minister’s way of compensating for the fact that young universities receive less base funding than old universities. But isn’t that a strange amalgamation of policy goals?

“That’s well put, but we’re not saying anything about that. That would be something for Universities of The Netherlands and the ministry to talk about. However, it does lead to a dynamic that varies from university to university. Some have more starting and incentive grants to give out than others. That may be a nuisance, but it could also serve as a motivation for older universities to re-evaluate the distribution of their research funding.”

Some get a grant, some don’t… Will the distribution lead to envy on the work floor?

“That’s exactly why we’ve asked the minister for extra money for the transition. We wrote that that would be a ‘great signal’.”

Even so, the grants may be divisive.

“I think it’ll be fine if it’s really about reducing workload and free-to-spend funds. People are generally aware of which colleagues are doing a lot of work and could really use such a grant. And later you may be eligible for an incentive grant. That’s how the system should work. One thing we should really avoid is people having to write proposals to be eligible for a starting or incentive grant, or being obligated to hire a PhD candidate, for instance.”

Speaking of proposals, one of the aims of the grants is to reduce the number of applications submitted to NWO. Nonetheless, if it’s up to your committee researchers on a starting grant can still apply to NWO as well.

“Yes, because these starting and incentive grants fall under direct government funding of universities. In principle, that should be seen as separate from indirect funding [for example via an NWO competition; ed.]. Mixing them up would make things very unclear, we think.”

But suppose you have two assistant professors, one of whom is given a grant – and, by extension, more time for research – and one of whom isn’t. That means the first one will have more time for an NWO application as well, widening the gap even more.

“That might happen in some cases, but where should we draw the line? The sector plans also bring in money. Should we then say: whoever’s getting money from the sector plans can no longer apply to NWO? This is why we would be in favour of giving a starter kit to every researcher that is hired – some funding to spend as they see fit, from any source, for a good start to their academic career.”

You also point out that most universities factor in overhead costs of twenty percent, which comes down to 60 thousand euros for a 300 thousand euro grant. That’s saying that for one grant you almost have to hire one full-time employee.

“And we do have an opinion on that. We thought about naming an actual amount. But we didn’t want to interfere in the affairs of the boards.”

So you can’t say anything the realistic costs of distributing the grants?

“You could ask yourself what the actual costs are. In any case, the current explanation doesn’t warrant an overhead of twenty percent. Having said that, we wouldn’t want to suggest that it’s a piece of cake and that there aren’t any indirect costs.”

Is there no way for them to give the whole grant to the researcher?

“We thought about whether the overhead should be zero percent. But a university does need to think about how it wants to structure things. We understand if this involves some overhead. However, it shouldn’t require setting up a huge department. And if you really can’t figure it out, why not use a lottery system to distribute the grants? With all due respect, surely a system like that wouldn’t be too expensive.”

Was Dijkgraaf using his political savvy when he brought such a varied bunch of administrators and activists together in one committee? He cornered all of his critics in one fell swoop.

“Let’s just say one shouldn’t underestimate Minister Dijkgraaf. He’s a sensible man and this wasn’t a bad move on his part. Then again, it could have backfired if we had failed to reach an agreement.”

That would have allowed him to say: the field hasn’t been able to work things out, so I’ll make the decision.

“That’s a good analysis, but we did reach an agreement. And I just want to stress, for the record, that it concerns a unanimous recommendation by all members.”

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