How do you distribute the research money? In theory it’s simple, the money should go to the best researchers and the best ideas. But in practice it is difficult, because who are the best researchers, and what are the best ideas? How to measure quality?
They think a lot about it at the NWO, the largest research funder in the country. NWO distributes almost a billion euros in grants each year through all kinds of different programs.
The most important is the talent program: scholarships for “talented and creative researchers” in different career phases, with the rather shameless names of Veni, Vidi and Vici. Some scholars acquire all three over the years; I know one of them, and his name is Caesar-fellow now.
‘It’s Hieke, she has a Veni’
Veni, Vidi and Vici determine careers. Without the Veni that I received in 2016, I would never have arrived where I am today. After the award, I was regularly introduced as “it’s Hieke, she’s got a Veni” – and everyone knew immediately that I was an excellent scientist. Unfortunately, this effect has faded; my Veni halo went out. It is time, in short, to apply for a Vidi.
So I immerse myself in the application process. It has changed a lot in the past six years. Take, for example, the resume, an important part of the application. In 2016, I was given a list of mandatory headings, such as ‘international activities’, ‘scholarships and fellowships’ and ‘supervised academic staff’ – the latter even with a pre-printed table. Of course, there was also an “output” section, where I had to list all my posts in prescribed categories. Anything that wasn’t a book or scholarly article fell into the “other” category, at the bottom of the list.
These days, NWO works with a “narrative resume”: you can fill an A4-sized page and a half with an ongoing story about your career so far, in which you choose what you want to highlight. The release list still exists, but now has a lot more space for things that aren’t books or scientific papers. Podcasts, newspaper columns, medical treatment guidelines, databases, teaching methods – anything goes, as long as it’s some form of output that “happens in your discipline”. Plus, you can only put ten things on the release list, a nice incentive to encourage people to focus on quality over quantity.
Recognize the arbitrary
The new criteria are closer than the old ones to my idea of scientific quality. But they do not solve an important drawback: there is always a certain arbitrariness in the allocation of subsidies. Of course, some apps are clearly better than others. But many applications are simply very good, and the choice between them often depends more on coincidences than on quality.
You can’t help it until there’s enough money to honor all the good candidates. What you can act against: the halo effect of successful application. Now the reasoning is often: she has a Veni (or Vidi, or Vici), she must be a better researcher than her colleagues without Veni.
But what if NWO, where they have an admirable will to innovate, replaced the final stage of selection with a lottery? First you remove the worst applicants, then you honor the applicants from the outside category, and you raffle off the remaining excellent applicants.
It was suggested several times, earlier this week by Marie-José van Tol, president of the De Jonge Akademie, during a debate with Marcel Levi, the boss of the NWO. But Levi thinks the lottery tickets are “beyond the honor of the NWO”. After all, the coin toss means NWO admits it can’t select based on quality.
It’s true. But NWO could be proud to acknowledge it. It would be of great help to researchers who come out of the box if no one could deny that receiving or not receiving a scholarship says more about a person’s happiness than about their qualities as a researcher.
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