'Knowledge must end up in the right place'
‘COVID-19, the greatest health crisis in modern history, disrupts the presentation of an ambitious policy plan from ZonMw in the area of medical and health research. Normally, we would now have been talking with each other on the podium in Diligentia, a theatre in The Hague. Instead, we are talking via a computer screen.’
'Knowledge must end up in the right place'
Jeroen Geurts: ‘Yes, that’s a somewhat bitter pill. You want to take a considerable step forwards, but things are put on hold for the time being. At least that seems to be the case. However, in reality, we have worked extremely hard the past few months to ensure the proper allocation of the 30 million euros made available for COVID-19-related research. This was partly realised via the contours of the new plan. So I definitely do not feel that we’ve been standing still.’
Veronique Timmerhuis: ‘In fact, the opposite is true. It feels as if we’re on the frontline. We very quickly reached agreements with the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport and other parties. Research that contributes to the initial control and healthcare questions surrounding COVID-19 was immediately made possible.’
But the policy plan 2020-2024 has been published, and the title alone reveals a considerable ambition: Making the difference. What exactly is the difference you want to make?
Geurts: ‘ZonMw is a research funding body that very much wants to be rooted in society. We are working towards that with people in the field, from care providers to fundamental researchers, all people who have ideas about the direction we should be heading towards with care and medical science in the Netherlands. This approach allows you to signal knowledge gaps, put research on the agenda and programme its realisation and impact. All of this emerges from the idea that the knowledge we want to generate must ultimately end up in the right place. That is what it’s all about.’
Timmerhuis: ‘The ambition is knowledge that can make the difference in practice. We are legally obliged to make a policy plan every so often. But Jeroen and I also want to make our mark on ZonMw.’
Research funder ZonMw clearly also has ideas about what is important in society.
Timmerhuis: ‘It certainly does. There are important subjects that should be high on the agenda in the coming years. The enormous differences between healthy life expectancy in poor and rich neighbourhoods and between higher educated and lower educated. The health of vulnerable groups. Or the enormous gap between the formal care provided by doctors and hospitals and the informal care at home, in the neighbourhood and in municipalities. Or the question about how you can make the voice of the experience expert more relevant.’
Geurts: 'At the same time, I also have personal ambitions about another type of science. One that is more modern, and no longer focusses on the one individual excellent researcher who wins all of the prizes, but instead puts more emphasis on teamwork and consortia and a broad interdisciplinary approach.’
What will the researcher who submits a plan notice in this regard?
Geurts: ‘We will no longer ask them about citation scores and impact factors from journals, but instead more about aspects such as collaboration and the impact of the knowledge produced. I know that some researchers experience that as an obstacle at times. However, our concern is tackling health issues in the Netherlands more effectively. And so we are making serious demands.’
Timmerhuis: ‘Ultimately, healthcare is about people. And people often experience an accumulation of different problems, such as poverty, illness, ageing and loneliness. Such problems cannot be solved with monodisciplinary research, at least not efficiently.’
Why is knowledge so crucial for these problems? It seems to be more an issue of organisation and policy and perhaps even funding?
Timmerhuis: 'What makes ZonMw so special is its close relationship with the field, and that means we pick up what the needs and questions from the field are. Knowledge and research can help to find the answers. For example, local knowledge is often available in care, but the possibility for the entire field to learn from this is missing. Local questions can justify further research. Our stimulus can make the system more efficient and effective. The right care in the right place is our focus.’
Geurts: 'That range from fundamental to highly applied is possibly best reflected in our English name: Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development. And our ambition is to genuinely facilitate development in healthcare. In our case, through research that is ultimately embedded in practice guidelines.’
Are changes needed at ZonMw to make this possible?
Geurts: ‘To be honest, I see these plans as a further strengthening of our current approach. Everything will be targeted at signalling, putting things on the agenda and programming with the aim of realising research that has a genuine impact. However, we know that researchers still experience us as considerably bureaucratic, with a lot of paperwork and the need to jump through hoops. I take such comments seriously, and we are making changes where possible. We will get rid of any unnecessary ballast.’
What do you hope this plan will lead to?
Geurts: ‘That we can profile ZonMw even more as a source of inspiration and an organisation that you can count upon as a health researcher. A friend who walks alongside you. That is generally unique for a funding body. A partner with whom you can produce research plans that can genuinely improve the care and medicine in this country. And so ultimately the health of all Dutch people as well.’