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Executive Board column: Hester Bijl on research and the pressure to win funding

Giving lectures, marking exams, essays or theses, supervising students and PhDs, doing research and, as if that wasn’t enough, also trying to raise the necessary funding. There is a limited number of funds for academic research and a large number of applications. Many of our researchers therefore experience great pressure applying for these grants because much depends on it. But things could be done differently. In a letter to the House of Representatives last week, Minister Dijkgraaf wrote that he wanted to work towards continuous working capital for researchers.

In this column Annetje Ottow, Hester Bijl and Martijn Ridderbos give a peek behind the scenes at the Executive Board of Leiden University. What does their work involve? What makes them enthusiastic? What challenges do they face? Building on a healthy, engaged and learning community begins with sharing what you are up to.

In a recent debate with Dijkgraaf and Marcel Levi, Chair of the Dutch Research Council (NWO), I argued in favour of precisely that. With ‘rolling grants’, which were proposed by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) in 2020, researchers are given working capital to spend as they see fit. This means they don’t have to write research applications all the time and that they have more room for non-programmed research. This is important for high-quality, innovative research, but more than anything it gives researchers themselves greater peace of mind.

I also think that we as a university could better support our researchers, with initiatives such as Leiden Research Support. By providing better information and advice on the application process and by helping them find alternative sources of funding. I also want to look together with researchers at whether we can work smarter: by sharing more knowledge and making more astute decisions, we might be able to increase our success rate.

‘I missed out on a prestigious grant twice as a researcher. I was very disappointed and would assume my colleagues feel the same way now.’

I myself experienced this pressure to win funding, particularly when I became an assistant professor in 1999. And the pressure has only increased since then, partly because the success rate has dropped. Less than 1 out of 5 research proposals succeed, which means not only a lot of wasted effort but also a lot of disappointment and frustration. I missed out on a prestigious grant twice as a researcher. I was very disappointed and would assume my colleagues feel the same way now. It takes time to pick yourself up and throw yourself into the next application. This is something we should talk more about together. We should also celebrate more when we do secure a grant.

In the debate with Minister Dijkgraaf and Marcel Levi, I therefore argued strongly in favour of an additional grant allocation method, one without competition. Wouldn’t it be good if some of the extra money that the Ministry makes available for research were invested in more security for researchers?

Does this strike a chord or would you like to share any insights or experiences relating to this column? If so, send us an email at nieuws@leidenuniv.nl

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