On Thursday the 13th of April 2023 the third Recognition & Rewards Festival took place in Utrecht. It was the first time the Recognition & Rewards programme was able to host an in-person festival. During this event, there was ample room for dialogue about the central theme ‘Rethinking Assessment’.
Eveline van Rijswijk, moderator, and science communicator opened the festival. She interviewed Joke van Saane, Rector Magnificus of the University of Humanistic Studies and Kim Huijpen, national programme manager Recognition & Rewards. Van Saane welcomed all the participants at the University of Humanistic Studies. She explained why the Recognition & Rewards programme matches perfectly with the mission and vision of this university. The University of Humanistic Studies likes to contribute to a humane society for all people. You can only do this if you do not focus only on research but also on education and societal impact.
Huijpen shared why the term ‘Rethinking Assessment’ was chosen as the central theme of the day. ‘When we started the Recognition & Rewards programme, we thought we should not develop new criteria for teaching, impact, patient care, leadership, and research too quickly. Because we did not want to go from one “tick-the-box-exercise” to another “tick-the-box exercise”. We took the time to develop visions to translate the position paper to the contexts of universities, university medical centres, research institutes and funders NWO and ZonMw. But now, it is time to really develop new criteria and to really rethink assessment. But then we asked ourselves: “Should we assess everyone every year?” We should probably shift a bit from development to assessment. And that is where the word ‘rethinking’ came in.
Column Hieke Huistra
After this opening interview Hieke Huistra (historian of science and medicine at Utrecht University) was invited to the stage to read her column. She spoke about the different ways to recognize and reward academic work — and especially about the necessity of both small and big rewards. She shared that some of the most valuable rewards she received for her academic work were very small: simple remarks, in person or by email, from students, from colleagues, from people who read some of the things she wrote. Small gestures that mean a lot. Further on in her column she spoke about the importance of giving big rewards as well. ‘To me saying that a permanent contract is the biggest reward we have in academia — feels like stating the obvious.’ In Hieke Huistra’s experience, ‘getting a permanent contract is crucial not only to ensure you have enough money and stability in your personal life, but also to truly feel that you belong to the academic world; it is what makes you a long-term member of the academic community.’
Round table about ‘Rethinking Excellence’
The Round Table that followed with Marieke Adriaanse and Yarin Eski on ‘Rethinking Excellence’ started with a difficult question. ‘What is academic excellence?’ Adriaanse reacts that academic excellence is very difficult to give meaning to without context. ‘Are we talking about someone giving bachelor courses? Or supervising PhD-students? Conducting a lab experiment? Or writing grants? Or supporting people writing grants? To me “academic excellence” is a very multifaceted construct that requires context in order to be meaningful.’ This does not mean for Marieke Adriaanse that we should not talk about quality. The contrary. She thinks that with the Recognition & Rewards programme we can increase the quality of our work in all domains. She is just not sure excellence is a useful concept.
Yarin Eski continues. ‘What Huistra in her column just said about giving compliments, this is also about taking care of one another. If you are unhealthy and you give that same example to others, what kind of knowledge are we producing then? Is that really excellent? Within our work it is not that taken for granted that we are healthy academics. We need to be careful not setting the wrong example on a regular basis. As soon as you get promoted you should ask yourself: “What can I give back?”. Basic leadership begins with taking care of those depending on you.’ In reaction to a question from the audience: ‘What behaviour is being punished that we want to see more of in our university?’ Adriaanse continues: ‘One of the things that we should bring back to academia is that we are humans. And that we can also talk about what we find difficult. It is this transparency and vulnerability which is actually punished sometimes. We should not punish but maybe celebrate it.’
Round table about early careers
After this round table session, Robbert Dijkgraaf, the Dutch minister of Education, Culture and Science issued a statement about the importance of ‘the Dutch approach’. ‘I am incredibly proud on the Recognition & Rewards programme. It has been really effective. A lot of things change in a short time and my international colleagues are actually jealous of what the Netherlands are doing.’
In his contribution, the minister reflected on his own career path. Then he talked with Onur Sahin (postdoctoral researcher at Utrecht University) and Charisma Hehakaya (assistant professor of UMC Utrecht) about early careers. When asked what the Recognition & Rewards programme means for early career academics, both gave a critical reflection. In practice, the programme is focusing on senior positions and not so much on junior positions. There do not exist, for example, career paths for PhD’s and postdocs. Because doing research and writing articles are the main tasks, most of them are doing a lot of other things in their own time. But that is not the whole story. Hehakaya emphasized the importance of good supervision. ‘This development is not only about research, but also about your personal development. What do you need as an early career academic?’ Both agree that supervisors play an important role in this personal development. The minister sees also potential here. ‘I think there’s a very important message for academic leadership to have these conversations with early career academics and in some sense help you navigate the future.’ Finally, both Sahin and Hehakaya propose a better representation for early careers in the national steering group. ‘It’s not only talking, let’s do it!’
After the plenary opening, two workshop rounds took place in the building of University of Humanistic Studies, interrupted by a network lunch. The participants had the choice of no fewer than twenty-one different and inspiring workshops, divided at three levels: general, immediate, and advanced. A report of the workshops, follows separately.
Column Noémi Aubert Bonn
The festival was closed with another plenary session. Noémie Aubert Bonn (postdoctoral researcher at Hasselt University and policy advisor at Research England) got the floor first. In her column she reflected on the Dutch Recognition & Rewards programme from a personal and international perspective. She talked about her personal journey from PhD student to postdoctoral researcher. A journey through Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, and England. In all these countries, she observed, assessors had fallen in love with simplicity of the journal impact factor, the h-index, and the number of papers. In all four countries, groups of academics worried about this, and they denounced the perverse incentives. Still an ingredient she was missing for a long time and that was ‘coordination’. In this respect ‘the Dutch approach’ can be considered as an inspiring example. ‘In my opinion one of the great advantages of the Recognition & Regards programme was that it put together different stakeholders as public knowledge institutions and funders.’ This approach has been followed up in different other countries, like Norway and the United Kingdom, and in the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment (CoARA). To make this international movement a success, she concluded that three points of action are important. ‘We need to listen. Firstly, we need to listen to the many countries who are still scarcely involved in this discussion but need our support. In the second place, we need to listen to the data to what we find about research and assessment. Finally, we need to listen to the evaluated, including early career academics.’
Interview with Rianne Letschert
This column was followed by an interview with Rianne Letschert, co-chair of the national steering group and the newly elected chair of the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment. When asked whether the Dutch Recognition & Rewards programme is an export product, she answers in the affirmative. At the same time, she emphasized that this programme doesn’t stand alone. The Recognition & Rewards programme is part of a broad international movement. ‘That really gives comfort to many of the early career academics.’ In contrast to the Dutch programme, CoARA does not deal with teaching activities. ‘From CoARA it is a lot of work in the research domain to get two new forms of research assessment. There are concerns, there is a lot of critique from certain disciplines. That it is about certain interests that people fear that they will lose. So, there is a lot of work to make sure that the disciplines accept the new ways of research assessment that we want to introduce for the individuals, the research teams, the institutes, the universities. There are different layers of assessments and I think it is okay that we focus within CoARA on research reform.’
After this interview, the festival ended with a panel discussion with Jeroen Geurts (co-chair national steering group and Rector Magnificus of the Vrije Universiteit), Marileen Dogterom (member of the national steering group and president of the KNAW) and Inge Werner (director of Social Sciences and Humanities domain at NOW). The panelists reflected on several questions. What have they learned today? Which good practices did they come across today? What are the most important dilemmas concerning recognition and rewards they have heard today? What are the biggest challenges in changing the way we recognize and reward academics? What is the role of leaders in academia to make this change possible? There was also room for questions from the audience.
It was a successful day full of interaction and inspiration. We like to thank all speakers, moderators, and co-hosts for developing the programme together. We very much appreciated the active participation of all the participants. We are looking forward to follow-up on all the interesting dialogues together.