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“This is not just any project, it takes top priority for me”

“This is not just any project, it takes top priority for me”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes

Rector Rianne Letschert on the assessment of researchers

MAASTRICHT. Quality above quantity, a clear path for teaching careers, and last but not least, team science instead of the age-old hierarchical structure. If it is up to rector Rianne Letschert, there is about to be a revolution within the world of academia. The assessment of researchers is about to be changed. The toughest hurdle is convincing Europe and then the rest of the world. 

Last week, university association VSNU, the university hospitals and research financers such as NWO and ZonNW already announced their intentions. But it was professor Rianne Letschert, who already made a plea for ‘team science’ and for more variation in the assessment of staff in her inaugural speech as rector in September 2016. They now all have to excel in research, teaching, social impact, and leadership. Can you expect all that from a single person, she wondered in a full St. Janskerk. No, thought and thinks Letschert, and that is why it is better to put the emphasis on teamwork to which everyone makes his or her individual contribution: “Not everyone needs to be good at everything.”


She successfully presented her plans - “the real driving force is of course Science in Transition” - to VSNU last September. The fourteen Executive Boards responded with enthusiasm and want to get the ball rolling quickly, Letschert has taken the lead together with rector Frank Baaijens from Eindhoven. In the coming months, they will meet with a group of employees from various universities and discuss the matter with a number of organisations, such as the Jonge Akademie, HR employees, student organisations ISO and LSVb, Promovendi Netwerk Nederland, and NWO. This should all result in a definite plan of approach after the summer of 2019, which will include the collective bargaining agreement and the UFO profiles. Letschert: “This is not just any project, it takes top priority for me. I want to attend all the meetings.”


Team science is her great ideal. “You can already see it in the Maastricht assessment criteria for the tenure track; what is your contribution to the group, how valuable are you to the team? Often the person at the top of the hierarchy gets all the credits, but what about all the others who make it possible to keep an institute or department going? At Intervict (International Victimology Institute) in Tilburg, where I used to work, we gained grants for the whole team, as a collective. I see the same thing at ICIS in Maastricht. It has so many positive effects on the responsibility and the mentality of everyone. I don't see what the extra value is in a PI culture where the principal investigator draws all the attention.”


Imagine the project is a success, what will the world look like in say ten years’ time? “There will be more balance, better opportunities for people with different qualities. The frustration of those who now get stranded because of the enormous emphasis on research achievements, will be greatly reduced. We will appreciate people for achievements in other domains: teaching, leadership, social impact. Then you don't just make a career when you pull in a lot of subsidies, have a high H-index or a list of publications with a high impact factor. We will have various types of professors, all skilled, but with different accents in their job responsibilities.” And what is very important, is that there is more to life than a professorship: “A university (senior) lectureship is also a great job. You are not only successful if you are a professor. And why could an associate professor or an assistant professor not become a department chairperson? Those department chairpersons also need more appreciation. At the moment, someone does the job as an extra. There is no extra time or salary, or a sabbatical as compensation.”


She acknowledges that it won't be easy. “It could bring about a revolution, but then we really need to change the culture within the academy. The people in charge, those who make decisions, must also go along with this development. We will get the deans and executive boards on our sides, but we will also have to get through to the people down on the workfloor about this new way of thinking.” Then, hopeful: “I was recently approached by the head of a department with almost only men. He said: ‘Since you put diversity on the agenda, we talk about it during the coffee break, it is an issue.’ It is a first step in the culture change, I believe in this.”


In 2014, the Dutch universities signed DORA, ‘San Francisco Declaration’ in which parties agreed that social relevance and quality of research are worth more than quantity. Great plans, but what came of it? “You see the results in some subsidy programmes; not all publications are required, just the top 5. And De Jonge Akademie (KNAW), for example, when taking on new members is no longer interested in an H-index. We ask for the most important publications, but besides that it is about much more, what you have achieved in the field of teaching or what your vision of education is.”


Even if Letschert is backed by the Netherlands, without Europe she won’t get anywhere. She realises this all too well. “We must not lose the competition with other countries. If we choose quality and they continue to put the emphasis on quantity, then it will be a tough battle.” For example, in the race for European subsidies (ERIC). The Netherlands wins fewer and fewer so-called consolidator grants, the Higher Education Press Office wrote only this week. “But a new research climate could be attractive and give room to breathe. In the end, also for the researchers pur sang. They could instead focus more on their research if they no longer need to excel in everything.”

Wendy Degens, Riki Janssen 



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