“The new science policy is unproven, undiscussed and risky for the Netherlands.”

Opinion | By Raymond Bott

January 8, 2024 | The new system being introduced in Dutch science lacks any evidence and is contrary to the principles of good governance. Science policy is therefore in danger of following the same path as primary and secondary education policy, warns Raymond Bott.

NWO and ZonMW building in The Hague. Photo: Vincent van Siegst.

Well-funded and implemented science policy is very important to the strength and well-being of society. Israel and South Korea, which are not exactly insignificant countries, spend the most proportionally on science in the world, and twice as much as the Netherlands. However, this money must also be well spent, and the Netherlands has been an expert in this field over the past 30 years. Using qualitative and measurable criteria, funds were awarded primarily to the most qualitatively productive scholars. The Netherlands is among the top five in the world and served as an example for the creation of the prestigious ERC competition for scientists in Europe.

However, in recent years there has been a complete change in policy direction. Based on the recognition and evaluation program, one measurable criterion after another was removed from the NWO CV. Biography no longer often plays a role at all in decisions about NWO funding. Through seed grants and incentives, hundreds of millions of euros annually in research funds are distributed among scientists in a virtual lottery, rather than on the basis of research qualities.

The distribution of these funds across disciplines depends on the numbers of students, not on the numbers of researchers or the importance of particular research to the Netherlands. The erosion of selection and funding standards is severely impacting science and medical science. Due to insufficient funding for these important research areas, the Netherlands is at risk of losing international connectivity, with all the ensuing consequences for our economic situation and prosperity.

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“One of the principles of good governance is learning.”best practices‘; What works, you can keep. For decades, Dutch science policy has been monumental in many respects best practices. Thanks to its moderate science budget, the Netherlands is at the top of the world, for example in terms of citations per scientist, which is the best (or at least poor) indicator of scientific influence. These indicators correlate very well with their usefulness to society, for example, which is expressed in the number of patents.

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If you think this policy is flawed, make small adjustments, learn from the mistakes, and see if it works or not. However, this is not what happened. The old policy has radically changed, and continues to do so, to a system in which scientists receive more equal funding. A scientist’s production (which is by far the best indicator of future success) becomes less important to his fundraising and career. The result is that highly productive researchers get less money, which leads to the logical prediction that less will be produced. The fact that productivity is less dominant also creates room for administrators’ desires regarding the subject matter and implementation of the research.

Whatever your opinion of this new system, there is no evidence that it will work. The fact that the new strategy conflicts with the very successful old strategy should be a major source of concern: it conflicts with the old strategy. best practicesThe principle of good governance. The old strategy was a reaction to the strategy of the 1980s, when production was not taken into account and Dutch science was characterized by nepotism and low productivity.

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Of course, such a radical change in policy must be made in consultation with workers, i.e. scientists. Politics must also have a say in this matter, because it involves many billions of taxpayers’ money and is of great importance to the Netherlands. This is also a principle of good governance. However, again this is not what happened. The new strategy has been designed and implemented by university administrators and NWO directors. The protests of many science scholars through letters, a meeting of Academy members, and a ScienceGuide survey have no effect. None of the measures have been reversed or modified.

On the contrary, politics has become increasingly extreme. An example is the NWO’s “Equality through Innovation” programme, where funding quotas are being considered along ethnic lines and appear to be introduced in 2025. The new strategy has been criticized by right-wing parties such as the VVD and the CDA. The VVD and CDA are part of a government that is investing more than an additional €1 billion a year, the largest new investment in science and higher education in decades. This provided a golden opportunity to get right-wing parties more involved in science, but this opportunity was missed. Bipartisan criticism and suggestions about the new strategy, which often coincide with suggestions from science scholars, have been ignored by administrators and the secretary.

As mentioned earlier, the strategy was never modified due to criticism. A widely adopted proposal in the House of Representatives, which calls for consultation with critical scholars, is being ignored by administrators and the minister. This lack of inclusivity towards scholars and politicians could still hold us back in negotiations with a new right-wing government.

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Does the above situation sound familiar to you? In fact, this also happened in primary and secondary education (LO/VO). Once upon a time, the Netherlands had PISA scores that were just below the highest global standards. However, the Minister and the House outsourced LO/VO to education umbrella organizations, and then a well-functioning education system was destroyed by unproven ideas from “education experts”. The recent PISA results must be a national embarrassment for a rich country like the Netherlands. The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science and the House of Representatives are now powerless: despite very poor results, they seem to have no chance of regaining control of the comprehensive educational organizations. In the meantime, it is highly questionable whether comprehensive educational organizations now realize that things really need to change.

Sometimes politicians view science as a luxury, or something you do on the side. That’s not it. It is the intellectual and technological resource of the country. This makes it Chefsachi. The job of science managers is to implement policies that are successful, have broad support among scientists, and that attract politicians of all political stripes. This gives the best chance for a successful and financially sound science policy in the long term.

Raymond Bott is Associate Professor at Erasmus Medical Centre.

Megan Vasquez

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