The Netherlands’ new science policy is unevidenced, undebated and risky
Previous output is by far the best predictor of future success, but has become far less important for Dutch funding allocation, says Raymond Poot
A well-funded and implemented science policy is very important for the robustness and well-being of a society. Israel and South Korea, not exactly frivolous countries, spend the most on science in the world as a proportion of GDP and twice as much as the Netherlands. However, in recent decades, the Netherlands has excelled in spending its modest science budget well.
Using both qualitative and measurable criteria, the money was mostly given to the most qualitatively productive scientists, leading to very high scores for the Netherlands in indicators such as citations per scientist – which is the best (or at least the least bad) indicator of scientific impact.
However, in recent years, there has been a drastic change in policy direction. Based on the Recognition and Rewards programme, one measurable criterion after another has been removed from the CV of applicants by NWO, the Dutch National Science Funding Organisation, in the name of eliminating bias in grant allocation. Indeed, the CV often doesn’t play a role at all in final decisions about NWO funding.
The old policy is being drastically changed, creating a system in which scientists receive more equal funding. A scientist’s previous output, in terms of productivity and quality, is by far the best predictor of future success but has become less important for funding allocation and future career success. The consequence is that top researchers might receive too little money to be internationally competitive, and there is more scope for their research agendas to be interfered with by administrators.
Hundreds of millions of euros per year invested by the government in Starter and Incentive Grants are being distributed among scientists by their universities in a de facto lottery, rather than on the basis of research qualities. And the division of this money among disciplines is now mainly based on student numbers, not on numbers of researchers or the relevance of certain research for the Netherlands. This formula strongly disadvantages STEM fields.
One of the principles of good governance is learning best practice: what works, you keep. If you think this policy has shortcomings, you make small adjustments and see if they work. However, that’s not what has happened since the new approach was unveiled in 2019. Whatever you think of the new system, there is no evidence that it will work. But there is plenty of evidence that the old strategy was successful – particularly compared with its 1980s predecessor, which also paid little attention to output and allowed Dutch science to excel only in nepotism and low productivity.
Such a drastic change in policy should be undertaken in consultation with the scientists. Politicians must also have a say, because it involves many billions of taxpayers’ euros and is of great importance to the Netherlands. However, this is not what happened. The new strategy was and is being devised and implemented by university administrators and NWO administrators without any wider input.
Hundreds of STEM scientists, including very prominent ones, protested in four public letters against the new policies. In a 2021 meeting of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), the country’s primary science quality control organisation, the Recognition and Rewards programme was heavily criticised (but no KNAW meeting on this important subject was ever organised again). And an independent poll of hundreds of Dutch scientists carried out last year by the Dutch science journal ScienceGuide suggests that STEM scientists feel negative about Recognition and Rewards, especially regarding its impact on the importance of research in evaluating their performance.
Despite this critique, none of the policies have ever been reversed or adjusted. On the contrary, policy is becoming more radical. An example is NWO’s Advancing Equity in Academia through Innovation programme, for which funding quotas on ethnic grounds are being investigated and might be introduced in 2025 – despite the fact that NWO is legally obliged to fund the best science and scientists.
The new science policy was criticised by right-wing parties such as the VVD and the CDA, which together make up 60 per cent of Mark Rutte’s outgoing government: a government that invested heavily in science and higher education. This offered a golden opportunity to increase the structural involvement of right-wing parties in science, but this opportunity was missed. Criticism and suggestions from both parties on the new strategy, often in accordance with STEM scientists, were ignored by administrators and the minister. Also being ignored is a formal motion, supported by two-thirds of the House of Representatives, calling for consultation with critical scientists.
Science does not rank highly in the priorities of most politicians. That is a pity, as it provides the intellectual and technological resource of a country, but it means that it falls to science administrators to propose and implement policy that works. That policy must not only appeal to politicians of various political stripes, but must also be able to command wide support among scientists. This gives the best chance of a science policy that is successful and financially healthy in the long term.
The erosion of rigorous selection criteria and financing is hitting STEM fields in particular, risking the Netherlands’ international standing and, with it, its prosperity.