“Evolution or revolution?”
Two weeks ago, I was one of around 400 scientists from all over the Netherlands who traveled to The Hague for the first national meeting about ‘the scientist in 2030’, organized by the Dutch funding organizations NWO and ZonMw. The participants formed a dynamic cohort of both young and more experienced scientists, who all expressed similar concerns and visions about the future of academia. Everyone agreed on the fact that we need a change in our academic system. A change towards more diversity, flexibility and teamwork, and away from journal metrics and individual accomplishments. The question is: do we wait for an evolution, or do we need a revolution? NWO chairman Stan Gielen highlighted the fact that “we are the first in the European Union to hold such a national consultation.” What needs to change? How should a scientist be recognized and appreciated in 2030?
We all are excellent… in different ways.
Rianne Letschert, rector of Maastricht University and representative of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), was the first speaker to highlight her perspective on the recognition of scientists. For her, it is about finding a new balance, in which all activities of academics receive the appreciation they deserve. At university, we expect every researcher to be an allrounder with excellent research skills, teaching skills, management skills, communication skills, writing skills, social skills and leadership qualities. However, in reality, too many people get into positions which in fact do not suit them. Letschert is pleading for more diverse career paths at university. Why should a single professor do it all, if there are plenty other qualified people that can do, for instance, the teaching or the outreach, in a much better way? “Nobody is excellent at everything in any other sector, except at universities”, Letschert said with a hint of sarcasm. We all are excellent in our job, otherwise we would not have come that far. But there are certain functions that suit one academic individual better than others.
In my view, the biggest issue is that research output gets much more recognition than the research process and other activities that are often seen as ‘additional tasks’. Also the audience highlighted the importance of teamwork, which is currently getting too little recognition, and voted for ‘excellence’ as something that should be abandoned; it has become nothing more than a buzzword without any real meaning.
There is simply no room for all of us, no matter how excellent we are.
The next speaker, Barend van der Meulen from the Rathenau Institute, liked Letschert’s vision but he warned that this will not lead to more faculty positions. With his talk, he gave a short introduction into the history of Dutch science policy. According to him, there are two lessons to be learned. First, science policy is almost never established at governmental level but by the scientists themselves. It is also the scientists themselves who accepted the use of bibliometric indicators (e.g. impact factor and H-index) as a measure for the quality of research during the 90s. The second lesson from history is that science has always grown exponentially, e.g. in terms of publication numbers and the numbers of trained scientists, which irrevocably leads to friction. According to Van der Meulen, changes in the way we recognize scientists will not change the number of available positions in academia. “We give the unjustified impression to people in their 30s that if they perform well, there will be a place for them at university. But that place just isn’t there.” He gave an important take home message: “Every scientist who is held at university for too long without career perspective has been hold away from a meaningful role in society.” Also Jeroen Geurts, chairman of ZonMw, recognized the struggle among colleagues who are trying to keep themselves above water in academia. “I do see people who try – year after year – to get a personal grant. Some of them are willing to bridge entire periods without salary for this. This is distressing.”
In my view, the unhealthy competition for too little positions clearly has its toll: on the one hand, academia suffers from a high prevalence of burn-outs, and on the other hand, young talent is left disillusioned and with the feeling of personal failure.
Academic work is a fight on multiple fronts.
Ionica Smeets, professor of science communication at Leiden University, offered a very illustrative description of academic work: a continuous fight on multiple fronts. There is the good flight on the borders of knowledge, for a victory that leads to new insights and innovations with impact. But according to Smeets, academic work is not only a fight for impact and recognition. It is also a fight against intimidation, fraud and abuse of power, which is primarily fought by young people in temporary positions instead of the ones who have the power. There are the repeating fights for grants, which lead to battle fields full of rejections. There are some incidental fights against reviewers who generally like your research paper but still want you to change major parts before publication. There are ‘Don Quichot’ fights against bureaucracy and the desperate fight for a permanent position. However, the most tiring battle is the one for a change in our system. “I hope that there will be fewer fronts left to fight for the scientists in 2030, and that they can fight for the good things of our work: new knowledge, good education, and ultimately, a better society.”
Contribute to change!
As Van der Meulen said, it is us scientists who must bring change. In the afternoon, we held different ‘break out’ sessions, in which all participants discussed in small groups a broad range of topics, including ‘indicators versus narratives’ and ‘the Netherlands versus the rest of the world’. It was encouraging to see that many others are sharing my concerns and visions for academia. It will be a long battle, but together, we can induce a change. Personally, I was impressed by the diversity of participants in this meeting: young researchers, principal investigators, funders, editors and other interested parties. This is giving hope in the fight against the current system. NWO and ZonMw stressed that this meeting was just the beginning and they invited everyone to keep giving input, e.g. via the LinkedIn group “Wetenschapper2030” or #wetenschapper2030. The last guest of the meeting, Jean-Eric Paquet, Deputy Secretary General at European Commission, recognized the Netherlands as front-runner in Europe, but luckily he also observes similar movements in other European countries. In this regard, I am proud of the Netherlands, the country that has already proven courage to change on many levels throughout history. And I am sure that, if Europe finds a common denominator, change will come.