The Young Academy supports change in the way academic staff are evaluated

The leading scientists of The Young Academy are squarely behind the new ‘recognition and reward’ system at Dutch universities, according to a collection of interviews and recommendations which they published today.

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Academics and university staff do more than just carry out research. They also spend time on tuition, science communication, patient care or management tasks. And they are entitled to be rewarded for that work - this is the thinking behind the new ‘recognition and reward’ concept. All universities want to make this change, but quite a few questions remain unanswered. If less weight is attributed to research performance, for example, how should we evaluate university staff in the future? How can we quantify other talents and contributions?

But change is certainly needed, says The Young Academy (a group of leading scientists of a relatively young age, affiliated with the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences). Its members hope to accelerate this shift with a new publication, full of interviews and recommendations.The publication is entitled Setting a good example, but it devotes little attention to criticism or the dilemmas involved. Above all else, its authors want to demonstrate that a different approach is possible.

“I don’t feel as much need to prove myself now, and I enjoy my work more”, says Geert Schenk, Assistant Professor of Anatomy & Neurosciences, in one interview. He found it hard to combine research and teaching work, so when he was given the opportunity to focus on teaching, he jumped at the chance, he explains. And he is very pleased with his decision. Even his research work has improved as a result. Now he can pick and choose which research he wants to do, because it is no longer what he is judged on.

“Geert is flourishing in his current position”, say the authors of the publication. More academic staff should be given similar opportunities, they argue. In university teams and departments, you need people who will complement each other - so why would you assess everybody’s performance using the same yardstick?

Unique contribution

The authors are expecting a lot from the transition to the new system. ‘Everybody makes a unique contribution, and the new system is likely to reward every member of the team. In addition, colleagues are more likely to support each other, because everybody benefits when every team member is performing at their best.”

One of the authors is Hanneke Hulst, a neuroscientist at Amsterdam UMC. Does she see any difficulties with this change at all? “The only thing that springs to mind is the risk of nepotism”, she answers.

Because if you assign less weight to citation scores and publishing in good journals, there is a risk that evaluation (and therefore staffing policy) could become less transparent. “Many areas of research are already quite small worlds, where everyone depends on each other”, she says.

But a range of committees and working groups has been set up to resolve any practical problems of that nature, she explains. The system has yet to fully reveal itself, but there may be a need for independent people to be involved in assessment and appointment processes.

Simply impossible

But in any case, the current system has had its day. “The workload is simply impossible, because we have to do everything all at once, and some of those responsibilities are not even taken into account when it comes to evaluation”, explains Hulst. “Science communication is essential, for example, yet it’s often viewed as a hobby rather than a real responsibility. And that does nothing to improve morale.”

But could it be that for the scientists of The Young Academy, this is all too easy to say? After all, the academy is made up of renowned academics who do not need to worry about their own positions. Maybe that makes it easier for them to argue that change is needed.

“Possibly, but you can also turn that argument around”, says Professor Hulst. “Our position makes it possible for us to play a role in this change. While other academics are all working their socks off to tick every box on their checklists and hold on to their positions, we are in a position to point out that the current system is not very healthy. These days, what we expect of academics is simply unrealistic, and we have to leave the current system behind us.”

Setting a good example - The Young Academy’s view of the new system for recognition and evaluation (‘Goed voorbeeld doet goed volgen - Het nieuwe erkennen en waarderen volgens De Jonge Akademie’) was published today.

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