What does the future hold for researchers in the Netherlands?

The Dutch research community debated, on 23 May in The Hague, a new approach to recognising and rewarding academics.

06/03/2019 | 3:46 PM

“It is important for the Library to stay connected to the world academics live in. The scientific reward system needs to change, and together with researchers, we can play a key role in making that happen,” says Sander Bosch, Project Manager Research Support at the Library. He is one of the members of the Library’s Research Support team who attended the “Evolution or Revolution” event organised by NWO and ZonMw on 23 May. researcher3kleiner

About 400 participants, from all across the Netherlands, got together in The Hague, in a former aircraft hangar turned into an event venue, to discuss whether it is time to consider a new set of competencies and accompanying evaluation criteria for the scientists of 2030. The majority of the attendees were female, came from the universities, and thought it was urgent to rethink the current rewards and incentives structure.

Less impact factor, more openness and transparency

Several early career researchers from the VU attended the event. We talked with Guido Weide, a PhD candidate at the VU Faculty of Behavioural and Movement Sciences. He felt the “topic of the meeting was very interesting” and that it was good to attend “to know what is changing with science”. “What’s my future?”, he asked. “Do I really need to publish so much to stay in science and become a good researcher?” Nick Kluft, a PhD candidate from the same faculty, who had come together with Weide, also found it important to attend. In his mind, “the researcher of the future should be much more open and transparent.”

The event opened with a video recording of a speech by the Minister of Education, Culture and Science, Ingrid van Engelshoven. Setting the tone for the discussions ahead, she highlighted how criteria such as publication output and the impact factor “say too little about the actual quality and relevance of research.” “Let’s not forget about teaching, social impact and academic leadership”, she told the participants. Rewarding cooperation and including open science in research assessment were also topics she found important to focus on.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     
The day continued with a packed programme of panel discussions and keynote talks in the morning and breakout group discussions in the afternoon. Throughout the day the leaders of NWO and ZonMW and researchers from many fields and at different career stages reflected on what the scientific profession should look like in the future and how scientific work should be assessed and rewarded.

United behind the need for change

In her speech, the Minister van Engelshoven had encouraged the meeting participants to think about concrete changes. There was much talk about the reasons why the academic rewards system needed change and a general consensus that change was needed. That was perhaps the most important achievement of the day, as stated by Jeroen Geurts, the President of ZonMw, in his closing remarks: “We have never been so united in saying that things need to change.”

Concrete proposals for change were few and far between. What was clear at the end of the meeting was that the one-size-fits-all set of criteria for evaluation we have today needs to be relinquished. There needs to be more focus on the process rather than just the outputs. The need for diversity – of academic roles, of career paths, of evaluation criteria – and flexibility was repeated by several speakers and was one of the main themes of the day. 

A need for a more balanced system of rewarding academics

There is far too much emphasis currently on rewarding individuals according to a very limited set of criteria, forcing researchers to fit one mould and to become “tireless workhorses” who need to excel at everything – as put by Rianne Letschert, Rector Magnificus Maastricht University, in her keynote speech. According to Letschert, who is leading the VSNU group that is working towards a new evaluation system, this situation leads to stress and frustration, increased academic competition between colleagues, and to cases of fraud, academic abuse and scientific harassment. She argued for a more balanced system of rewarding academics, where the emphasis is not put solely on individual performance, but recognises how individuals function within teams and what are their individual strengths within those teams. Team science and the need to reward the collaborative efforts and accomplishments of teams was another of the main topics of the day.

Even though it is not clear yet what the future will hold, Elleke Tissink, who started her PhD at the VU Faculty of Science four months ago, left much inspired by the event and its warm and positive atmosphere. The discussions on the need for diversity in the system opened her eyes to the importance of developing a wide range of skills while pursuing her PhD research. This will be useful, she reflected, whether or not she stays in academic research. As noted by Barend van der Meulen, Head of Research at the Rathenau Institute, there are not enough jobs at universities for everyone who obtains a PhD, but society can really benefit from the contributions of people who are trained in research.

What’s happening next and how can researchers contribute?

After the inspiring discussions, it is time for implementation. NWO and ZonMw will review the input received throughout the day, particularly via the breakout group discussions, and will publish a summary of the event within the next few weeks. In the meantime, additional contributions and thoughts are welcome through the LinkedIn group Wetenschapper 2030. In September this year, the VSNU, together with NWO, NFU and ZonMw, will release a detailed position paper, which will also be open for public consultation. In November, the VSNU will an host an international conference with the European Association of Universities.

How does the Library help?

VU Library Live
Keep abreast of new developments in academia, such as the discussion around the academic rewards system, through the VU Library Live Talk Show and Podcast series. The last episode “Rethinking the Academic Rewards System” featured a lively and interesting discussion around the question of how to change academic rewards to facilitate research that is open and transparent and contributes to solving key societal issues.

Alternative metrics for societal impact and relevance
Altmetrics is a new method of measuring impact, which looks beyond journal citations. It captures mentions in social media, blogs, bookmarks, news media, policy documents, and the number of downloads. Altmetrics are available earlier as compared to citation counts, which take a longer time to accrue. The manual “Altmetrics: how can I see the social attention to my research papers?” explains how you can get started with the Altmetric Explorer tool offered by the Library.

Data Conversations
Data conversations focus on the process rather than the output of research. This new series of events at the VU aim to provide a forum for researchers to be recognised for the research data stories they share with others. The first event on the series will focus on open data, open methods, and reproducible research and will take place on Monday 17 June in the Global Room at the VU.

This article was written by Maria (Marques de Barros) Cruz, VU Community Manager Research Data Management, who also attended the event on May 23rd.

Photo credit: Sannaz Photography