Research grants through lottery for the first time

At the end of last year, UMC Utrecht witnessed a fundamental precedent in research policy. A total of eleven personal research grants – with a total value of approximately €2.5 million – were awarded by lottery (so-called Start-up and Incentive Grants). This fit well with the Utrecht Children’s Centre, which earlier that year had been awarded four research grants totaling €80,000. Research Office Team Advisor Rinze Benedictus from UMC Utrecht talks about this.

“Yes, you read that correctly. Not a dense panel of experts making a comprehensive objective assessment, but drawing folded notes from a vase with a cloth on it. It seems like a slap in the face to anyone who thinks that selection according to scientific quality is possible on objective grounds. So why The lottery is made if you can distinguish between good, mediocre and bad research proposals,” says Renzi.

More transparency

Rinze offers three reasons for this scoop. “First of all, it concerns direct research grants from the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science that aim to create more ‘peace and space’ for academics. In fact, they are intended for all permanent researchers, except that very few grants have been provided for this purpose. But on However, the goal is fundamentally different from, for example, grants awarded competitively through the NWO. These new grants fall within the so-called “first stream of funds,” the primary funding for UMC research, and the broad drawdown is consistent with this overall goal.

Second, many (early-career) researchers need more transparency about the decisions that define their careers at UMC Utrecht. This need is certainly not unique to UMC Utrecht, but was clearly evident from our consultations.

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Who is nominated for a promotion or scholarship and why? Evaluation by a panel of incoming researchers, no matter how common, is considered by many to be opaque. A tie will satisfy this requirement.

The final point is that under these circumstances, drawing lots is more like a lottery better Customization mechanism. “It may sound crazy, but it is.”

The myth of objective evaluation

Renzi: Let’s start with the unspoken principle of many scientists. Scientists like to think that they can define and, sometimes, measure scientific quality objectively. For this reason, it is very common to compare different researchers (‘ranks’) on the basis of a clear number of numerical indicators. It is also common to differentiate between very similar researchers. Call it the myth of objective assessment, which has firmly established itself in the thinking and actions of many academics.

The origin and integration of this can be traced to a system characterized by increasingly scarce resources, the pressure of performance and a business perspective on science, and the availability of quantitative measures of scientific quality (such as citation scores and other bibliometric measures). The long-term negative effects of this are now known and criticized. Therefore, UMC Utrecht, Utrecht University and all other Dutch universities are working to find broader ways of recognition and appreciation.

Challenging the myth of objective evaluation is part of recognition and appreciation. Many senior researchers with experience evaluating applications tell the same story in the hallways: identifying the best candidates is as easy as identifying substandard proposals. But then there is a middle group where the differences are so small that the selection is in fact random. Completely arbitrary differences – a travel grant here, a lecture there – can be the deciding factor in whether or not you get a career-defining grant. In addition to arbitrariness, all kinds of bias can of course occur. At that point, the lottery procedure will become a fairer and more transparent means of awarding research grants. In addition, drawing lots takes less time than lengthy meetings. Although a draw also requires preparation, it is more efficient.

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Global experiences

this idea Slowly gaining ground In science. be seen Experiments in SwitzerlandGermany, Luxembourg and A Proposal from Amsterdam researchers. also Tilburg University Experiments with it, incl Video on YouTube.

“There are also criticisms, of course. NWO president Marcel Levy qualifies the lottery as “Lazy solution“, because the NWO has to choose anyway (“This is our mission, this is what we exist for”). Meanwhile, its NWO is organizing Discussions About the new selection methods and Levi’s complaining seems like a background procedure. In short, lottery as part of the evaluation procedure will become more common in science. It leaves less room for differences and arbitrary prejudices. It may sound crazy, but transparent randomness is fairer.

Renzi Benedict
Office of Staff Counsel Research
Open science team

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Megan Vasquez

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