Science 24 September 2020

How should we recognise and reward scientists?

Scientists teach, lead their department and share their insights with the general public. They are going to receive more recognition for this kind of work. But is it at the expense of their research?
BY Bas Belleman and Evelien Flink/HOP PICTURE ROB BÖMER

In her first year as a PhD student and trainee neurologist at the UMC Utrecht, Annemijn Algra had to complete an evaluation form: what had she achieved? “It was hopeless,” she says. “The first question was ‘how many articles have you published?’ In the first year of your PhD, the answer is always none, though there are a lot of other things you do and learn. But if you are not asked about that, it can look like you are treading water as a young academic.”


That was five years ago. It is ironic that such a mediocre form was used in the UMC Utrecht in particular, because it was run by immunologist Frank Miedema, who is also head of the Science in Transition (SiT) action group. For years he tried to shift the course of Dutch science. We need to stop counting articles and citations, he suggested time and time again. You should be asking why someone is doing research and what they have achieved with it. The credo: fewer publications, more quality. Miedema could, therefore, appreciate the criticism of the forms at his own faculty.

Algra took an active role in the youth branch of Miedema’s action group: the ‘think-tank’ Young SiT. Together with two colleagues from the UMC Utrecht, her first act was to start drafting a new evaluation form for PhD students. These three think-tank members produced a digital version of the form (“a victory in itself”) and dropped all the ‘box-ticking’ questions about numbers of publications and awards. “Instead, we ask PhD students to name two achievements from the past year that they themselves consider significant,” says Algra. “That can be anything, for example organising an event or setting up a research study, but also starting a discussion on a difficult situation within your PhD team.”

Cut-throat competition

It is a good example of the direction that universities want to take, because Science in Transition’s rebellion did lead to something. Knowledge institutions and those funding research want to ‘recognise and reward’ teachers and researchers in a different manner, they announced last year.

‘It should not be the case that supervisors will now say: you are such a good teacher, you no longer need to apply for a Vidi grant’

For academics who want to climb the career ladder, only one thing has counted for years: their research performance. There is cut-throat competition for research funding and the workload at universities is skyrocketing. Everything is research-oriented. But that has to stop. Universities want to reduce the focus on long lists of publications in good journals. Good education, strong leadership, the impact of research and, for doctors, good patient care will soon carry more weight in the assessment.

But what will this look like in practice? That is still unclear. This autumn, the universities will all present their own interpretation of the system. For young researchers, the question is what kind of CV will give them a good chance of building a career?

One of the proponents of the new ‘recognition and reward’ system is the Maastricht Rector Magnificus Rianne Letschert. She wants all kinds of talented people at the university to be able to flourish, she says. Soon, for example, you will also be able to become a professor if you focus primarily on education.

Letschert: “Until now, research has been the deciding factor, but in education you can also develop yourself. And this does not mean being popular among students. For example, you start your career as a junior lecturer, then you take on coordinating tasks and after that you start transforming education, and eventually you will be regarded as someone who really does something more and something different than the rest. You might even become a global leader in education, just as you can be among the world's top academics.”

Football team

And the university should appreciate that, she thinks. That's the way it will be with other tasks. Universities, for example, expect 'leadership' from their deans and professors, but they receive little recognition for it. Everyone has to provide a little bit of leadership on the side. “A department simply needs different types of people, skilled in research, education, leadership and social impact,” says Letschert.

A football team is not just made up of strikers or goalkeepers

And the research itself also demands more explanation. It should not just be a competition to see who makes the most ‘impact’ by publishing in good journals. According to the new direction, scientists will have to work on a 'narrative CV' in which they explain why their work matters.

Letschert is very enthusiastic and, smiling, calls herself a believer. She sees objections primarily as an opportunity to once again explain all the advantages the new system brings. Will such a narrative CV not lead mainly to a collection of slick researchers with a flashy presentation? Will you not lose sight of the quirky types along the way? Letschert thinks it will be fine. People already ask others for help when writing their cover letter; little will change there. Besides, supervisors will see through any bombast, in her opinion.

Pressing questions

Nevertheless, it still raises many questions for young scientists, as was apparent this month at a Young SiT online conference. ‘Recognition and reward’ may sound like music to the ears of administrators and idealists, but there is still some work to be done to convince young scientists. During the meeting, there was a flood of pressing questions on the chat.

For example: how much importance will be attached to teaching? What will this new system mean for the workload? What use is a Dutch narrative CV if I want a career abroad? And, of course, the key question: what will we be assessed on instead?

The honest answer is that it remains to be seen. However, there is tremendous solidarity among the administrators in academia that this is a good idea. They have closed ranks. President Ineke Sluiter of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (‘guardian and ambassador of the sciences’) is strongly in favour of the new direction as well.

Upon further questioning, however, it is clear the advocates are not blind to possible disadvantages of the new system. What about the position of women in the new system, for example? As one of the feminist ‘Athena’s Angels’, Sluiter obviously has her eye on that. It is well known that women do more academic housekeeping within a programme, she says. They are more likely than their male counterparts to ensure that the programme runs smoothly, for example through good mentorship. Care must be taken to make sure that they are not ‘trapped’ in those tasks in this new system. Sluiter: “It should not be the case that supervisors say, ‘you are so good at teaching, we recognise and value that, you no longer need to apply for a Vidi grant; someone else can do that.’”

Not entirely new

However, the changes will not be that big, Sluiter puts it into perspective. ‘Recognition and reward’ is not entirely new. “We have occasionally zoomed in on the problem to get it on the agenda. It's not the case that universities used to blindly focus on publications and impact scores and didn't look at all at who they had in front of them. When I applied for my chair, the advertisement included all kinds of tasks other than doing research. I suspect I had competitors with more publications on their track record at the time, but that apparently wasn't the deciding factor in the end.”

‘We made a digital version of the form and dropped all the ‘box-ticking questions’ about publications and awards’

Do unconscious biases not get free rein if good citation scores and high impact no longer lead to a doctorate? In fact, it is the other way round, according to Sluiter. Those scores contained bias, and it is finally being addressed by thinking carefully about career paths within universities. Currently, the amount of publications is still too often a measure of quality, she says. “Women are the ones who carry children. There is a period when their production is lower than that of their male peers, who can continue to publish undisturbed. As a result, women sometimes struggle in appointment procedures.”

And what's wrong with someone having to elaborate on their publications? Sluiter: “If someone's name is one of twenty others above an article, you have to wonder what they actually contributed. You have to weigh that.”


What would you say to a young scientist who wants to prepare for the new academic world? What is your advice? Sluiter: “Everyone has to qualify scientifically. That is the starting point. But then you see some people naturally gravitate towards students; they want that, it’s where their talent lies. Others can write beautifully and engagingly, even for wider audiences. We want to give space to this kind of diversity.”

A global academic revolution
In 2013, the action group Science in Transition caused a small shockwave in the Dutch scientific co
mmunity. The founders were affectionately labelled 'rebels' by the then President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. They criticised the "deluge of scientific publications" whose social value is not immediately clear. They also called for a fairer distribution of research funding, increased focus on education and greater transparency in all the uncertainties that science entails.
However, there was also discontent outside the Netherlands. In 2012, the so-called San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment was published: a manifesto for improving how researchers are assessed. The authors advocate less emphasis on statistics and impact scores and more focus on the content of the research. Journal impact scores were originally intended as a tool for librarians, it says, and not as a hard measure of research quality. In 2014, the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) added its signature. Five years later, in 2019, the Dutch Research Council (NWO), a research finance organization, and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) followed suit.

This means, if the number of employees remains the same, that Dutch university lecturers will do less research. There is no way around it, is the opposing view of protest movement WOinActie. The new system will lead to less research at universities, while the interrelatedness of research and education is precisely what makes the university unique.

Yet the proponents think differently. According to Sluiter, people are not automatically going to do less research at all. Above all, it means that the additional tasks will soon be rewarded as well, she says, and not that people can leave the research behind.

In particular, there will be fewer hopeless applications in the battle for research funds, Letschert hopes. After all, not everyone should have to fight for a Dutch Research Council grant. It all starts with doing good research, but if your talent lies elsewhere (education, the popularisation of science, leadership, patient care), then you can make space for that in the course of your career.


Therefore, one way or another, new career paths at the university will open up. Young scientists are starting a race whose rules are as yet unknown and are searching for guidance. Try drafting a ‘narrative CV’ without any guidelines.

During the Young SiT conference they reacted enthusiastically when designer Rick Bonants gave a presentation. He recently completed his Master's degree in sustainable business and innovation at Utrecht University and has his own startup: InSci. He is working on an app that allows young researchers to track their development and performance. That is useful for evaluation interviews, or if you're applying somewhere.

‘What use is a Dutch narrative CV if I want to build a career abroad?’

He wants to respond to ‘recognition and reward’, but that is easier said than done. “Take something like good leadership,” says Bonants. “Are you going to attach certain targets to that? For example, does someone have to sit on three or four boards? But ideally, we want to get rid of those kind of 'scores'. That is truly a significant challenge.”

For his app, he is now experimenting with the skills of the so-called merit model: an acronym for the words management, education, research, impact and team player. The values are placed in a spider diagram, one in each corner of the ‘web’.

Improve science...

At the conference with the young researchers, it was apparent that this was popular. Thanks to the spider diagram, you get less of a feeling that you must excel in every skill, one of the participants commented. And that is indeed the crux, according to Young SiT member Annemijn Algra. “Young scientists need to get rid of the idea that they have to tick every single box. Dare to go for what you are good at. Perhaps it is a cliché, but: to improve science, you have to start with yourself.”

Will ‘recognition and reward’ result in a reduced workload if you no longer have to be the best at research? Because that's one of the burning issues in the scientific community: many researchers are working so hard that critics say they are putting their own health at risk.

No, the workload is a separate discussion, say administrators. It will not decrease if you start recognising and rewarding academics in a different way, because it originates somewhere else: there is just too little money for too many tasks. “We work in an overstretched system,” says Letschert. “But within that system you can still make more sensible trade-offs.”

Translation: Taalcentrum-VU


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