Vinny, Fedi, Vissi? The best ideas don’t always appear on the surface

How are research funds distributed? In theory, it’s simple, the money should go to the best researchers and the best ideas. But in practice it’s hard, because who are the best researchers, and what are the best ideas? How do you measure quality?

They think about this a lot at the nation’s most important research funder, the NWO. Annually NWO distributes nearly €1 billion in grant money through all kinds of different programmes.

Most important is the talent programme: grants for “talented and creative researchers” at different career stages, with the somewhat indiscreet names Veni, Vidi and Vici. Some of the three researchers have gained over the years; I know one of them, and now he calls himself a fellow Caesar.

“This is a hickey, she has a fin.”

Veni’s, Vidi’s, and Vici designate jobs. Without the Veni I received in 2016, I wouldn’t be where I am today. After receiving the award, I was regularly introduced as “This is Hieke, she has Veni” – and then everyone immediately realized that I was an excellent scientist. Unfortunately, this effect wears off. My aura was extinguished. Time, in short, to apply for Vidi.

So I dive into the application process. It has changed little in the past six years. Take, for example, the resume, which is an important part of the application. In 2016, I received a list of mandatory titles, such as “International Activities,” “Grants and Awards,” and “Supervised Faculty”—the latter even with a pre-printed schedule.

Of course there was also the Output section, where I had to list all my posts in specific categories. Anything that wasn’t a science book or article falls into the “other” category further down the list.

Nowadays, the NWO works with a ‘narrative CV’: you fill one and a half pages of A4 with an ongoing story about your career so far, in which you choose what you want to emphasize. The list of outputs is still there, but it now provides much more room for things that aren’t books or scholarly articles.

Podcasts, newspaper columns, medical treatment guidelines, databases, teaching methods—anything is allowed, as long as it’s a form of directing that “occurs in your specialty.” Plus, you can only put ten things on your output list, which is a good incentive to encourage people to focus on quality rather than quantity.

Admit arbitrariness

The new standards are closer to my old idea of ​​scientific quality. But it does not solve an important flaw: there is always some arbitrariness in the allocation of subsidies. Sure, some apps are clearly better than others. But many of the apps are so good, the choice between them is often based more on coincidence than on quality.

You can’t do anything about it as long as there isn’t enough money to honor all the good requests. What you can do about: The halo effect of a successful application. Now the reason often: She has Veni (or Vidi, or Vici), she must be a better researcher than her colleagues who don’t have Veni.

But what if the NWO, where they have a wonderful aptitude for innovation, replaced the final selection step with a lottery? It first removes the worst apps, then honors the apps from the outlier category, and charts the lot among the remaining excellent apps.

It has been suggested several times, at the beginning of this week by Marie-José van Toll, President of De Jonge Akademie, in a debate with Marcel Levy, President of the NWO. But Levy believes lottery tickets “outweigh the NWO’s honor.” After all, drawing lots means that NWO admits that it cannot choose on the basis of quality.

This is correct. But the NWO may be proud to admit it. It would help researchers who fall overboard a lot if no one denied that receiving or not receiving a grant speaks more about someone’s happiness than it does about their qualities as a researcher.

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