The Netherlands is one of the countries that Sweden is often compared to in relation to research. Conditions there are similar to those in Sweden. In the Netherlands, as in Sweden, basic research is conducted mainly at universities. Universities receive funding from national government, and researchers can also apply in competition for funding from the national research council, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.
“The Netherlands and Sweden have the same attitude. Our economies and societies are strongly knowledge-based,” says Ingrid van Engelshoven, who is the Minister for Education, Culture and Research in the Netherlands.
Last Wednesday, she visited Sweden to take part in Forskningspolitiska Dagen, a full-day conference focused on research policy arranged by the Swedish Research Council. There she talked about what might be behind the Dutch research success.
Top of the lists
The Netherlands tops the list for several measures. Its 13 research universities are among the 200 best in the world according to The Times Higher Education Supplement’s ranking. Articles by Dutch researchers are among the most cited in the world, and the country also receives a large proportion of the EU’s research funding. At the same time, investments in research are moderate.
“The key is openness. We are open to ideas and collaborations, irrespective of hierarchy, or the background, sector or discipline of our collaborators. We expressly encourage openness, for example via the National Research Agenda programme, which gives strong support to collaboration and multidisciplinary bottom-up basic research.”
Basic research forms part of Ingrid van Engelshoven’s portfolio. Applied research and innovation, on the other hand, are the responsibility of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy.
Increasing direct government grants
The importance to research results of direct government grants – the part of government grants that are paid straight to universities – is a much debated issue in Sweden. In the Netherlands, the percentage has fallen from 61 to 56 per cent over the last ten years, but it is still far higher than Sweden’s 40 per cent.
“Direct funding gives universities a stable foundation for their research funding,” reasons Ingrid van Engelshoven. At the same time, funding via research councils adds further competition to the system, which is an important driver of excellence.
“Although competition is necessary, we have found that the system needs better balance. For this reason, we recently transferred 60 million EUR from indirect to direct government grants. And we are considering transferring a further 40 million EUR (in 2017, direct funding amounted to 3 900 million EUR).”
Sweden and a few other countries are right now negotiating about the costs of publication with publishers that produce scientific journals. The reason for this is the demands for results produced using public funding to be published entirely openly, for everyone to read. It was in 2016, when the Netherlands held the chair position, that the EU adopted the goal that all publicly funded research should be published openly by 2020.
“We were the first country to have a national plan for open publication in 2017. In 2018, 54 per cent of all publicly funded research in the Netherlands was published with ‘open access’. This makes us the leader within the EU, but more steps need to be taken. Negotiations between our universities and publishers are a necessary part of the process.”
Ingrid van Engelshoven establishes that the transfer to open publication requires changes to the systems for publication and for earning merit. It is also dependent on collaboration, both national and international, as the systems are global.
Openness can also increase trust in research.
“Open access to research findings and data improves repeatability and transparency in research.”
Problems still remain to be solved in the Dutch research system, however. For example, it is difficult for junior researchers to obtain permanent employment. In the last few years, the number of PhD students and postdocs has increased by 50 per cent. But the number of permanent positions has not increased.
“We are now trying to improve the chances of gaining permanent employment, and have for example set aside 70 million EUR for this purpose. We also have funding formats aimed specifically at junior researchers.” The ‘Veni’ grant is for researchers with recent doctoral degrees, and allows them to spend a three-year period on independent research and to develop ideas.
There is also quite a lot to do about gender equality. In the Netherlands, only just over 20 per cent of professors are women. In Sweden, the proportion is 29 per cent.
The #metooacademia movement has pushed gender equality higher up the agenda at nearly all universities and university hospitals. After the Dutch network for female professors published a report on unsuitable behaviour in academia, the sector has started to work on concrete measures, the Minister tells us.
Footnote: The quotes in the article are based on the Minister’s email answers.