KNAW: ‘A balance between tied and free research is lost’

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Scientific research must be overhauled. Free, unbound science must again become just as important as demand-driven, bound research. That is stated in a recommendation from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) that will appear this Wednesday.

Scientists do their work roughly in two flavors: most have to bail themselves through a permanent race for research funding. The contours are often predetermined: it is research in which the government or companies decide on what the research should be about. A much smaller group of scientists can get started purely on the basis of their own curiosity.

Both variants are very important, says Bert Weckhuysen, chairman of the advisory committee and professor of inorganic chemistry and catalysis at Utrecht University. “But the balance has been lost.” In recent years, money has shifted more and more towards research. “The ratio is now roughly one third free, two thirds bound.”


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“Jump through more hoops”

Weckhuysen calls this “projectification of science” this trend. “Of course science also has to deliver something to society,” he says. “But tied research requires more from scientists. They are in a straitjacket and have to jump through more hoops. ”

That starts with the application, says Weckhuysen: “You have to squeeze your expertise into a grant proposal to increase the chance that you will get the money. Then the following hoop follows: find companies or social organizations that contribute to your research. You must then also seek collaboration with other scientists and ensure sufficient social relevance. ”

This “application pressure” leads to a high workload. Research from WOinActie, a platform of hundreds of scientists, turned out last week that 40 percent of them work overtime twelve to fifteen hours a week, resulting in stress and other psychological complaints. “The stories are true,” says Weckhuysen, who has spoken with numerous researchers in recent months. “There is a lot of unrest.”

This is also because the number of students has grown enormously. Researchers must therefore provide more education, while the education budget per student has not grown sufficiently. “That was at the expense of, among other things, the independent, free research.”

Not just a money issue

To reduce the workload, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) and the Association of Universities (VSNU) recently proposed to to shift part of the research money (100 million) from NWO to universities. But that, Weckhuysen believes, is not the answer. “A culture change is needed. We have to step out of this maddening carousel, “he says. “The balance must be restored.”

That is not just a money issue, says Weckhuysen. Although the budget for independent research must be ‘at least doubled’, he calculates in his advice. Costs: around one billion euros, structurally. Researchers must use this money to set up a new fund (“rolling grants”) that scientists can use during their career. These rolling grants must bring stability, because the money goes directly to the researchers who can buy space for their own research. “They can, for example,” free themselves “from educational tasks,” says Weckhuysen.

This Wednesday Weckhuysen hands over the advice to Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven (Education, D66), who asked for a new look at science funding last year. “Then I hope the minister gives it a fair chance and dares to work it out.”

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