On Friday June 14th, the workshop ‘Evaluating research: what effects do current funding practices have in the Netherlands?’ was hosted by ZonMw. The workshop was a result of the research project ‘Follow the Money’, that was funded as part of the ZonMw-programme ‘Fostering responsible research practices’. An audience consisting of around 30 researchers and funders with a wide variety of disciplinary and institutional affiliations discussed the merits and drawbacks of existing funding practices, as well as proposing improvements.

Too much low risk and top-down science

After an introduction by project leader Gerben ter Riet (Amsterdam UMC and HvA), postdoctoral researcher Stephanie Meirmans (Amsterdam UMC) presented some of the project’s findings on scientists’ experiences of how competitive research funding affected their scientific practice. Based on 14 interviews and 12 group sessions with researchers from the humanities, natural and biomedical sciences, in the Netherlands and Switzerland, she showed that scientists were predominantly, although certainly not exclusively, negative in their assessment. Scientists warned for dangers such as too strict planning and bureaucracy in research, too much low-risk and top-down science as well as unrealistic expectations leading to unintended side effects. Expectations and values of researchers and funders may in practice diverge to such an extent that they can lead to demotivated researchers. Strikingly, Swiss scientists were much more positive than their Dutch colleagues about their situation and their relation with science funders.

National differences between scientists’ experiences

A number of commentators added extra perspectives to the scientists’ perceptions. Barend van der Meulen (Rathenau Institute) found the national differences between scientists’ experiences remarkable, given the large similarities between the Dutch and the Swiss science system at a macro-level. He hypothesized that especially the relation between scientists and their funders constituted an important difference, contrasting a Swiss sense of ownership among scientists to a feeling of distance and consumerism in the Netherlands. In his historical contribution Pieter Huistra (Utrecht University), the project’s other postdoctoral researcher, pointed out that scientists’ reservations vis-à-vis their funders have a long history, but that such reservations may have lately increased due to an increasing power and importance of funding bodies.

Competition versus collaboration

Sonja Jerak-Zuiderent (Amsterdam UMC) added an anthropological perspective to the discussion. Her research consists of ethnographic studies of scientific practice, to find out what ‘achieving good science’ means on an everyday level. Her most important conclusion was that our tendency to understand science in terms of competition is contradicted by much of scientists’ collaborative work and therefore is at least partially misguided. The need to think beyond competition was also much heard in the second part of the workshop, dedicated to constructive changes in the funding system.  

Sharing research evaluation amongst funders and researchers

Drawing upon her interview material, Meirmans offered a number of suggestions for fostering good science, scientists and evaluation practices, e.g. more focus on long-term aims also extending beyond economic ones, bottom-up science, more time and room for scientists to tinker, and a reduction in the number of evaluations and more care when doing so. Speaking from his own experience, Jeroen Geurts (ZonMw) added the need for diversification in evaluations. He shared his dream for research funding that should foster science in the form of bottom-up interdisciplinary collaborative ‘networks of networks’, which led to a very fruitful discussion. Gerd Folkers (Swiss Science Council) gave an insight into the benefits and downsides of the Swiss funding system, illustrating some elements responsible for its success: high-risk high-gain funding, a mix of funding instruments, a certain degree of scepticism towards evaluators, and a firm conviction to design funding ‘with the researchers and for the researchers’. It led the workshop’s chair and project leader Herman Paul (Leiden University) to conclude that the way forward for research evaluation should be shared by funders and researchers.

More information

ZonMw research programme Fostering Responsible Research Practices (FRRP) FRRP Project Follow the Money

Author: Dr Pieter Huistra, Department of History and Art History at Utrecht University

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