In 2019, Dutch public knowledge institutions and research funders published a position paper entitled ‘Room for everyone’s talent – towards a new balance in the recognition and rewards of academics’. Where are we now, almost two and a half years after this publication? And what remains to be done? Six members of the Recognition & Rewards steering group shed their light on the developments and on the debate that has arisen.

A new way of recognising and rewarding

Many academics have found (or still find) that the assessment of their work is overly one-sided, focusing solely on the research they produce – based on traditional, measurable output indicators. This approach has consequences for their university careers and for their chances of obtaining research grants. The result? A heavy workload, an imbalance between academic fields and, ultimately, a loss of talent. Gifted researchers leave academia because of its culture, for example. And so do innovative lecturers, good leaders and people who have a big social impact or deliver good patient care.

The Recognition & Rewards programme is designed to create room for academic talent in all the domains above, in a healthy and stimulating work climate, and to take Dutch science and academia to the next level. Universities, university medical centres (UMCs), the Dutch Research Council (NWO) and the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development (ZonMw) are all taking action. Universities and UMCs are working towards the diversification of career paths, which will make it possible to assess academics more fairly, based on their chosen profile. Research funders will assess grant applications, research and research proposals more on content and quality and less on purely quantitative indicators or the journals in which research is published.

Honest competition, healthy ambition and excellence

The new way of recognising and rewarding academics has created a buzz in Dutch science and academia, says Jeroen Geurts (at that time still affiliated to NWO/ZonMW). ‘Consequently, many people are starting to protest, because they are afraid that the new way of working will actually be worse, not better.’

For example, some say that it is the wrong reaction to an unwanted situation: too little funding for science and academia. They would prefer to see an increased investment in academic research in the Netherlands. Indeed, one could argue in favour of this, but it is a different discussion altogether. The Recognition & Rewards programme is also – and above all else – about creating a fairer and healthier work climate, given the limitations imposed by funding.

Marcel Levi (NWO) believes that science and academia would not benefit from a situation in which every proposal submitted to the NWO is successful. ‘Some form of quality-based competition is needed, but this should be an honest competition. The current attitude is that if you fail to obtain a Vidi grant, you are a loser. This is ridiculous; if someone doesn’t get a grant, it’s simply because there isn’t enough money.’

No one is against excellence in Dutch science and academia, Pieter Duisenberg (UNL) agrees. ‘Excellence, ambition and eagerness to learn are wonderful things we don’t want to lose. That is why there will always be some degree of competition between academics.’ He does not agree, however, that a new way of recognising and rewarding academics will create an environment in which ‘merely average’ results are good enough.

More quality, content and creativity

So, what value will traditional indicators have in the new situation? How will the new assessment approach affect the careers of young and established academics? And what will the changes mean for the position of Dutch science and academia at an international level?

There is no simple answer to the questions above. The executive boards of the different universities have their own, nuanced views on the change in recognition and rewards. ‘Of course, we in the steering group support the principles that underlie the Recognition & Rewards programme,’ Levi says. ‘But that doesn’t mean we don’t welcome discussion. It’s fine if people disagree with us.’

Moreover, the ideas of the steering group are continually evolving. ‘Of course, we listen to criticism,’ says Ineke Sluiter (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW)). ‘And we try to debunk myths too.’ For example, the myth that the narrative curriculum vitae would completely supersede quantitative data when assessing academics. ‘Naturally, you need to substantiate any claims you make in a CV, and numbers are a good way of doing this.’

Room is now being created for academics to include what they feel their strengths are and to focus on what matters most in their field. Academics will be given more opportunity to present their quality, content, academic integrity, creativity and contributions to society. The need for this became evident, for example, in an NWO work session attended by both young researchers and established scientists from various disciplines. This session also made it clear that people need guidance in what they can include. ‘We need to do something about this,’ Levi says. ‘A lot depends on successful Veni and Vidi applications, which is why we have to help young academics write the best applications possible.’

An improved academic system through diversification and vitalisation

Among other things, the Recognition & Rewards programme focuses on grant applications and career paths: two very separate objectives. This sometimes blurs the discussion, because career development opportunities, career policy and career paths really are very different to research proposals, Levi says. Sluiter agrees, ‘The objectives are strongly intertwined and similar, which has a major impact on dialogue. I remember a heated discussion because someone said that the programme wasn’t about research. Of course it is. We are academics.’

The idea that people’s excellent research performance will no longer get recognized is a misconception. ‘The point is for individuals to build a good CV within their chosen career track,’ says Hanneke Hulst (De Jonge Akademie). ‘We expect high standards of education and/or research from everyone. A career path that focuses primarily on research will still be possible, with the corresponding recognition for research output. However, there must also be room for people who are involved in research and one of the other key areas, the results of which are not expressed in research output. A good mix of people with different competences would be ideal, so that all tasks (research, education and leadership) are carried out at the highest level possible.’

So, the decision to introduce a new way of recognising and rewarding academics does not mean that the quality of research will be lower. In contrast, it is a positive choice for more ‘team science’: to promote multidisciplinarity, where one team member can be good at research, another at making an impact and yet another at teaching. The team will benefit collectively. ‘Various research groups say this could work very well for them,’ Duisenberg says. ‘And it will have advantages for individuals too. Not everyone needs to be good at everything or to focus on everything. It is paramount that all academics can express their particular talent and passion. For one person, this will be research, and for another education or leadership, for example.’

Marian Joëls (Netherlands Federation of University Medical Centres (NFU) and University Medical Centre Groningen (UMCG)) adds: ‘People sometimes forget that you don’t just become a good researcher. We rely on education to provide us with the skills we need. Education is not the “poor cousin”. The same applies to management tasks. Imagine that a professor successfully helps eight PhD candidates to defend their PhD theses in a particular academic year but sees eight colleagues in the research group succumb to stress in the same period. This would be a great achievement in research terms, but there are problems with the leadership side of things. It is important to signal this. Good leadership is only possible with regular feedback – from PhD candidates and others – on performance in this respect.’

The Netherlands as a trailblazer

Because the new way of recognising and rewarding academics so clearly chooses to assess academics on more than research criteria alone, some people fear that the Netherlands will lose its top position in the international academic community. The Recognition & Rewards programme seeks to achieve the optimal solution, through which the Netherlands is actually choosing to be a trailblazer in a movement that has taken off internationally. For example, more than 2,000 organisations and 18,000 researchers have signed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), including important international players like the European Research Council and prominent journals like Nature.

If the Netherlands really wants to be a forerunner, it will be important for figureheads in Dutch science and academia to demonstrate that education and leadership talent is just as important as research talent. As such, the Recognition & Rewards programme has similarities with current discussions about the number of female professors. ‘If you want to have more women at the top, without increasing the total number of positions available, men will need to create some space,’ Sluiter says. ‘If a room is hung full of portraits of men, some of these portraits will need to make way for portraits of women.’

This is a deliberate choice, because the diversification of talent will benefit Dutch science and academia across the board. That is why we are willing to give up a little of what we have now, Geurts concludes. ‘Returning to the portrait scenario above: we think it’s a good idea for some paintings of top researchers to be replaced with paintings of top lecturers or academics with a big social impact.’

Author: Huib Kouwenhoven

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