Suspension awaits academic following weak proposal to NWO

Anyone submitting a weak proposal to research funding body NWO can soon expect to be excluded from further participation for a year or two. The universities and NWO hope this will reduce the pressure on the system.

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This plan is being suggested today by universities association VSNU and research funding body NWO in a letter to Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven of OCW. It is one of the ideas put forward to stem the rising tide of applications for research funding. 

The idea for a ‘restriction’ like this for weaker applicants has been borrowed from the European Research Council where academics forfeit automatic inclusion in a subsequent round once they have had a substandard proposal rejected.

Another measure mentioned by the letter writers is the scrapping of deadlines at NWO. Then researchers would wait until their proposal is really good enough before submitting it and would put their ideas down on paper with less haste.

"Looking over shoulders"

Renee Westenbrink, head of research policy at TU/e, points out that this isn't about limiting the number of researchers submitting proposals, but about safeguarding the quality of submissions. "As a university we say: don't rush to submit a proposal that actually isn't ready. Assessing it involves a huge amount of work and that puts pressure on the system."

The university is not always involved in applications to grant programs, says Westenbrink. "When it's a grant provided by the so-called Gravitation program ('Zwaartekrachtprogramma') or another major fund we do keep an eye on how the application is going, because a lot of people are involved, both at our institution and elsewhere. Similarly, for various reasons, we take note of applications for ERC grants, a department might need to give an institutional guarantee or co-financing might be required. But we only look at the quality of the proposal when researchers specifically ask us for feedback. Then that feedback might be that we feel the proposal isn't ready and we advise against submission."


Making their own preselection more often is something else the universities are considering with a view to reducing the mountains of research proposals at NWO. What's more, universities and NWO may want to start working with quotas: certain NWO programs would then have a maximum number of applicants.

This idea needs some more work. They realize it poses the risk of shifting the workload from NWO to the universities. That wouldn't in practice change anything and academics would not feel that the pressure on them had diminished. Internal preslection by the university is not something Westenbrink favors. "The researcher needs to be fully committed to his or her proposal. We don't want to be looking over researchers' shoulders - certainly not with our assessment hat on."

Change is also coming to the way academics are assessed. It will become more ‘narrative’. In other words, the research funding body is keen to put less emphasis on the number of publications and the prestige of the journals in which articles appear. Instead, academics would submit, say, the top 10 of their own publications and explain why they are so valuable. This should offer equal opportunities to people who are ‘following a dynamic career path’, write the universities and NWO.


Parallel to this, the universities are keen to ensure that securing NWO funding is not the only way to progress in an academic career. They want to exempt young researchers more often from having to apply for research funding, so that they can spend more time on their own development. But this comes with a caveat: the universities say that the necessary funding must be available.

They also want to put stronger emphasis on other career paths at the university, for example in the areas of education or innovation. This has been announced before, in their plans for other ways of ‘recognizing and valuing’ their employees.

The letter writers warn the minister that certain problems can only be resolved with additional funding. And that the financing of the universities must become more stable.

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