Even before the pandemic, researchers faced an uphill battle. Student enrolments are increasing year on year, but the national research budget is not keeping up. Sky-high work pressure and unpaid overtime is a daily reality for many lecturers and researchers. The battle for research funding is clearly out of control.
One way or the other something will have to change. This message has now finally gotten through to many politicians, too, as we can read in the political party manifestos published for the upcoming parliamentary elections. They have come up with all kinds of plans to give research a boost.
More (fixed) funding
The basis for change seems to be a bigger national budget for research. The protest group WOinActie has been fighting for years to increase the budget for academic teaching and research by at least one billion euros, and even Minister Van Engelshoven now also thinks that the next government will have to put more money on the table.
Most parties also want the newly-elected government to loosen the purse strings for the permanent funding of universities. The idea is that institutions that receive more funding can also offer their researchers more. The labour party PvdA describes this more generally as "releasing more funding for fundamental research".
One party notable for its absence from this list is the centre-right VVD – the party that still leads in the polls by a long shot. Specific pledges to increase university research budgets are nowhere to be found in their election manifesto.
The conservatives do think that university funding should not be linked so much to student numbers but more to academic quality. This would lead to "fewer diploma mills and more funding for excellence in teaching and research". The party also advocates investing in research through the new National Growth Fund, for example in the field of artificial intelligence.
GroenLinks, PvdA, D66, PvdD
Research has confirmed time and again the heavy workload of researchers and lecturers. Workload pressure is so high among Dutch academics that it leads to all kinds of psychological and physical health problems. WOinActie took this issue to the labour inspectorate last year, along with the unions.
A number of different parties also want to do something about this issue. If it were up to green party GroenLinks, all universities would receive structural resources to lower workload pressure. The centre-left party D66 and animal rights party Partij voor de Dieren also hope that a bigger budget will give overburdened researchers more time and space for their work. The PvdA wants to reduce the pressure to churn out papers ("publish or perish").
Cancel the race for research funding
GroenLinks, D66, CU, PvdA, SGP, PvdD
Many academic researchers have to compete for grants from funding bodies such as the Dutch Research Council (NWO) and the European Research Council (ERC). They have to spend a lot of time writing grant applications even though their chances of success are minimal.
GroenLinks would like to do away with this "excessive competition". If it were up to D66, they would also bring an end to the "futile application circus", which they would hope to achieve by increasing budgets and instituting "streamlined, more efficient application procedures".
The Christian parties ChristenUnie and SGP want to do something about low success rates. The SGP feels that there are too many research agendas and grant programmes in general. Applicants need "greater clarity".
GroenLinks, SP, SGP, PvdD
Academic researchers are sometimes financially supported by private companies or non-profit organisations. Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences KNAW warned in the past that this kind of external financing can lead to “undesirable levels of influence”.
That is why, in their manifestos, several parties emphasise the importance of independent research: private companies should not exert too much influence in how research funding is awarded, and should not be involved at all in the results of academic research.
The socialist party SP would like to set up an independent fund that would allow private companies to requisition research projects while keeping an arm's length from the actual researchers. The PvdD wants to see "stricter requirements for independent research" when creating special chairs that are funded by private companies and foundations.
More permanent faculty
For unions and activists, it's a favourite target: the high percentage of temporary appointments at universities. Many researchers also have a termination date in their contracts. This has to change, says the SP. D66 has called on universities not to forget young researchers (postdocs) in particular.
Unfettered academic research
D66, CU, SGP, CDA
Academic research has lost the balance – that was the conclusion of a report by a KNAW committee led by Utrecht University professor Bert Weckhuysen last year. Currently, strategic and thematic research projects are soaking up the NWO budget, leaving little over for free and unfettered research arising from intellectual curiosity.
There ought to be enough funding available for the latter category too, a number of parties believe. The SGP writes that research "conducted freely and independently" deserves more attention.
The Christian democratic party CDA proposes giving young researchers and faculty members "their own work capital", which they would be free to spend on non-goal oriented research. This idea is also strongly reminiscent of the Weckhuysen committee study, which advocated the creation of a "rolling grant fund". This is money researchers can access without having to compete with each other.
Wait and see
There's certainly a wealth of great proposals, but we have to wait and see what is left after the new cabinet formation. And then there's still the question of where the hundreds of millions of euros for all these ideas will come from. Raise taxes? Increase tuition fees? We have a tense wait until we find out the answer to this, too.
For this article we read through the political party manifestos for the upcoming parliamentary elections. Not all parties included proposals for academic research.