NWO roundtable: starting grants could prove divisive

There are still major differences of opinion when it comes to ensuring academics’ social safety, the fight for scarce research funding and the distribution of starting grants, a Dutch Research Council (NWO) roundtable revealed this week.

photo Marjolein Snellink

“I don’t see any paintings on the walls here. Has it always been like this?” Journalist and moderator Lucella Carasso opened the NWO roundtable at Leiden University’s The Hague campus with a nod to the temporary removal of a portrait of former Leiden University administrators.

The decision to take down the painting was controversial, to say the least. Leiden rector magnificus Hester Bijl, who was on the debate panel, drew the following conclusion: “The discussion on diversity and inclusion is very much alive at the university, and far from over.”


NWO chair Marcel Levi recently also found himself at the centre of a public firestorm. In front of an audience of mostly policy officials and young academics, he explained once again why he had apologised for a column in Het Parool on what he saw as the misuse of the word ‘safety’. It had not been his intention to ‘trivialise’ the concept of social safety. He also stressed that social safety was a top priority for NWO: “We believe that science thrives and flourishes when people feel completely free to think, do and say whatever they want.”

He did not receive much pushback from his fellow panellists, although Professor Marie-José van Tol, president of The Young Academy, did call his column “a bit insensitive”. VVD MP Hatte van der Woude actually appeared to jump to Levi’s defence: “You don’t have a natural birthright to not feel hurt. For example, students shouldn’t say they feel unsafe when a teacher asks if they’ve done their assignment.”

The discussion focused on the role the NWO could play in promoting a healthy research culture. Levi promised that his organisation would lead by example at its nine research institutes, but the NWO has little to say about universities. At most, it can require grant applicants to refer to their institution’s safety policy.


For many academics, the cutthroat competition for research grants – from none other than NWO – is a major source of stress and tension. Unfortunately, there is not enough funding to honour all deserving applications, Levi explained, which inevitably leads to disappointment. “It’s a mistake to think that people whose applications are rejected are bad academics. That’s a misconception we need to get rid of.”

For early career academics, a grant can make all the difference in the world, according to Professor Marie-José van Tol, president of The Young Academy. She proposes letting fate decide between applications of equal merit, as this would soften the blow of getting rejected. Levi did not seem amenable to the idea, nor did Van der Woude.

Starting grants

If all goes well, the fight for funding should cool down soon, Van der Woude said, as universities will be allowed to spend 150 million euros annually on starting grants of 300,000 euros each for beginning researchers. The VVD hopes that this will keep the researchers who receive these starting grants from applying for NWO grants.

An independent NWO committee will advise on this issue – and other topics – for each research discipline. Levi himself hopes that young researchers who are awarded starting grants will remain free to look for other sources of funding as well.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire

Leiden University rector magnificus Hester Bijl expects that young academics will certainly be helped by the starting grants. But the funding for these grants is still limited, which means that the universities will have to make tough choices. “Perhaps the grants could be shared by researchers in some fields, because there can be big differences in terms of financial needs.”

She did not give an example, but it stands to reason that a researcher who requires an expensive laboratory would have different funding needs than someone who can make do with a laptop. The NWO committee is also going to advise on grant sharing.

Could starting grants become yet another divisive issue in Dutch academia? Will it be out of the frying pan and into the fire for academics? The Young Academy’s Marie-José van Tol warned against creating a new competition and hopes that the wishes of young researchers will be taken into account.

In the main photo from left to right in the panel: Lucella Carasso, Marcel Levi, Hatte van der Woude, Marie-José van Tol and Hester Bijlsma.

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