'We need to be vigilant about this new academic approach'

| Jurriaan Huskens

With lots of publicity, the Dutch knowledge sector (universities and funding institutions) has welcomed a new era in the appreciation of academics. When reading the news articles, interesting developments can be noted, but major questions and issues remain untouched.

The main solution that is being put forward is ‘placing less emphasis on the number of publications, and a greater emphasis on the other domains in which the academic is active, such as education and impact’. It sounds like we academics all evaluate each other based on numbers of papers, journal impact factors, and citation scores, both in academic appointments and promotions as well as in awarding grants.

What makes you choose a dentist?

Who participates in juries and tenure track committees knows such one-dimensional metrics is usually not the case at all. Grant forms do ask for publication lists or a selection, but also for a zillion other things: an impact statement of your research, international collaborations and visibility, etc. In tenure track committees, a vision statement, in written and presentation form, is common practice, as well as educational performance, and of course funding acquisition.

In grant proposals, the evaluation revolves around two major questions: ‘Is the proposed research interesting and relevant?’ and ‘Do we believe the proposer can live up to what (s)he promises in the proposal?’. What makes you choose a dentist: his/her promise that (s)he can solve your tooth problem or a track record of successfully treated patients? It would be good if both are positive.

Diversity

Likewise for grants, promising excellent plans needs to be accompanied by track record. And how do we measure track record? That can only be done by reviewing scientific output. Obviously not only publications and citations, but they are undeniably still a pretty good measure for past performance. Any new scheme will have to come up with a transparent and objective way of judging performance, otherwise unfairness and subjectivity will play an even larger role in assigning grant money than currently is already the case.

Likewise, academic promotions (should) aim to answer one major question: ‘Is the person growing to be a leader in the field?’. I applaud the quest for more diversity, as we have selected in the recent past primarily for the somewhat verbally aggressive and career-minded workaholic, whereas greater diversity is essential for a flourishing academic environment. More diversity means: giving people opportunities to put different values to basic science, valorization, education, and management. But also: letting them spend their time in ways that promotes their efficiency and creativity and suits their personal circumstances. A major risk is that this diversification triggers managers to create multidimensional spreadsheets with increasing numbers of boxes that need to be ticked. Basically, diversity is then being translated into ‘quality A and quality B and quality C’, etc., where instead a healthy subset of these qualities and their balance should be the norm.

Real problems

What are now the real problems that should be solved? Both career development and grant schemes are only symptoms of larger problems occurring in Dutch academia. More fundamental problems are: growing work stress and decreasing funding rates, and these are to some extent connected.

Stress is being recognized as a growing problem in academia. I see colleagues around me getting overwhelmed by work activities, to the point that they lose efficiency and pleasure, and even get a burn-out. Does writing publications cause stress? Or writing grant proposals? Or an upcoming tenure track evaluation? Approaching my 400th paper and 50th PhD student, I can say: I doubt it. Stress is, instead, caused by uncertainty, uncertainty about by what measures one will be evaluated, by unrealistically low chances of success that makes funding unpredictable, uncertainty about the possibility to continue a fruitful and stimulating line of research, etc.

Academic paradox

There are people who believe that stress and work pressure are related to the presence of too few academics to get all the work done, and thus measures and money are proposed to hire more people. While this type of stress may occur in some areas of academia, I doubt whether this is true for the majority. In contrast, I believe we are currently subject to a major ‘academic paradox’: work pressure is not relieved by hiring more people, but instead amplified by it! Why so? Most academics get hired to contribute to both research and education. This combination of education and active research is essential, because academia is about training young people by educators who are themselves active in the development of the knowledge they propagate. Hiring more academics, without increasing the total funding budget for research, thus increases the pressure on the funding system and lowers the grant rates. This means that all scientists, not only the newly hired ones, need to spend more time on applying for funding if they want to maintain a sufficiently strong and recognizable research contribution. With the current grant rates dropping into the single digit percentages in several frameworks, we are close to the point that we need to spend all working hours (and more) on writing grants.

Creativity and excellence

Therefore, the even deeper problem that exists is: volume policy, or better, the lack of it. We take ‘solutions’ offered by the government, like the sector plan for the beta sciences, as a sign that we are being taken serious, while instead it enlarges our problems. Without rethinking how to match funding budgets to numbers of academics, and how to couple these to the time a person needs to obtain funding, we will never reach a lasting solution. True creativity is not supported by longer and more complex grant processes, nor by larger consortia, nor by writing more proposals. Instead, creativity and excellence are fostered by stimulating people to do what they are good at, and by reducing the time they need to spend at things that distract from the basic academic tasks (science and education).

Major step versus small step

Does the ‘new academia’ need ‘… interdisciplinary networkers who collaborate with numerous colleagues on a central problem’? Not at all if ‘networkers’ means creating another competence box for a scientist to tick, not when it consumes more time than needed to be productive and creative, not when it creates more uncertainty about the evaluation of the proposals, not when it does injustice to the diversity criterion... We’re simply not all good networkers, and making networking an essential part of obtaining grants selects for only a small subsection of the scientists to be productive. I can agree with ‘We need many different talents to achieve this, whom we will now truly acknowledge and appreciate’. But only when all these different talents all get a fair chance and a fair share to pursuing what they love to do, good science and good education, with room for self-fulfillment and for choosing different, personalized routes to achieve these! Shaping grant schemes to foster only large consortia will not contribute to a diverse and productive academia.

We academics, we all need to be vigilant in the coming months as to whether the promises made in the ‘new approach’ really are going to provide the desperately needed move in the right direction, or, to paraphrase Neil Armstrong’s famous quote, whether this ‘major step by the knowledge sector’ will allow the small step by each of us…