Scholar of the Future – Report on the conference ‘Evolution or revolution? Talking about scholars in 2030’

21e eeuw

On 23 May 2019 in The Hague NWO and ZonMW organized a discussion day about the scholar of the future. About 400 academics engaged in debate with each other and with ZonMW and NWO about how academics should be valued, acknowledged, and remunerated in 2030. The event was organized for several reasons. Recurring discussions about high work pressure at universities, minimal consideration for education and teamwork in the valuation system, increasing attention to valorization and scholarly communication, and growing criticism of the dominance of quantitative evaluation criteria, such as the H-index and the impact factor, are important considerations. In addition, Plan S and the focus of NWO and ZonMW on open access and open science gave rise to discussions about reconsidering the importance of the impact factor. In the morning plenary session, scholars from all ranks of academia – junior and senior, natural and social sciences, and humanities, ranging from research directors to specialists in scholarly communication – shared their views of the ideal scholar and examined how quality, impact, and relevance of scholarship should be valued. The afternoon was devoted to workshops, where participants presented their own solutions for different themes. The turnout of women was remarkably high and – less surprisingly – most of those present were young scholars.

Barend van der Meulen, Rathenau Instituut, career track scholarship

Learning from the past

Barend van der Meulen of the Rathenau Instituut took participants on a journey back in time. He argued that research policy from the 1990s has been decisive in how we judge and value scholarship nowadays. Back then, bibliometric indicators, such as the journal impact factor, were accepted as the standard of good scholarship. ‘After all, quantification signifies knowledge.’ In addition, life sciences and engineering sciences became the dominant model, involving a principal investigator with a research group comprising up to eight researchers. Other fields of scholarship have followed this example. Third, the idea that funding is scarce arose in this period. Unlike in the 1960s, these resources were no longer growing exponentially. The inevitable choices instigated stiff competition, thereby nurturing the idea that competition would improve allocation of resources and recognition of talent. According to Van der Meulen, competition also underlies the misleading idea that all young talent will find university positions. Finally, universities are manifesting increasingly as research centres, research universities, and are consequently becoming increasingly similar. 

Van der Meulen offered solutions as well. He emphasized that every scholar who spends too long at university is withheld from the society that needs these talented researchers. He therefore advocated a change in mind set. In his view, we need to acknowledge that not everybody can pursue an academic career at university, and researchers should receive training that caters more to broadly-based deployment in society. He also urged ending the mushrooming new tracks for young talent, as this policy in excess does not increase permanent appointments. In addition to depriving society of this talent, possibly more importantly: the practice leads to stiff competition, serious frustrations, and huge work pressure among those age 30-37. 

Barend van der Meulen, Rathenau Instituut, Conclusions

Mission Impossible

Rianne Letschert, rector magnificus at the University of Maastricht and member of the VSNU (Vereniging van Nederlandse Universiteiten) team, which proposes revisions to the valuation and recognition system, expressed a clear vision of scholars in 2030. In her concise and cogent statement, she argued that output from individual scholars presently receives too much consideration, education and good leadership too little, and the precise social impact of scholars still less. She also wondered aloud whether everybody needed to be an excellent researcher. This is obviously a huge rock in the present pool of scholarship.

Rianne Letschert, VSNU/University of Maastricht, requirements for scholars

Letschert advocated the ‘step up and step down’ system, aimed at encouraging scholars to assume different roles at different stages in their career. After all, some scholars are better at scholarly communication, argued Letschert, while others excel mainly as researchers. Letschert therefore also encouraged those present to value these different paths more, from education to research or scholarly communication. In addition, she believes that we should value team science far more. Academic leadership therefore merits encouragement too. In Team science the professor will not automatically become the team leader, because, as she argued, not every professor is also a good leader or director. Team science valuation stresses the importance of excellent output by the research group as a whole. Not everybody within the team needs to do excellent research, since different roles are possible and necessary on each team. In other words, Letschert advocated a diversity of roles and functions, with consideration for the capacities and ambitions of individual scholars and not necessarily based on seniority or the number of grants obtained. 

Struggle as a metaphor for scholarship

Ionica Smeets, column

At the end of the morning Professor of Scholarly Communication Ionica Smeets delivered a column. She compared scholarship to a struggle that has positive but certainly also negative connotations. Smeets qualified academics as heroic combatants on the periphery of the discipline, while embarking on a voyage of discovery with students, fighting the competition for scarce grants, while waging a Don Quichot-style battle behind the scenes against the advancing bureaucracy. She also briefly mentioned skirmishes with reviewers, attacks from behind by colleagues and trenches between disciplines. Basically, scholarship is a war of attrition, but, as she argued, ‘we scholars have designed this system ourselves, so let us overhaul the system ourselves as well.’ Smeets urged transitioning the system, not evolution (‘because that would take too long’) or revolution (‘as that would be too abrupt’). She concluded by expressing her support for Letschert, in her advocacy of different roles for scholars, by positing that it is remarkable that scholars whose teaching is ‘substandard’ or are  poor at scholarly communication are not regarded as a problem, as long as they conduct ‘excellent research.’ This argument was also supported by Jeroen Geurts, the chairman of ZonMW, who argued that expecting every scholar to do everything well and assigning everybody all roles at once is increasingly regarded as problem. Geurts expressed the intention to have this system revised.


Team science: One of the conclusions from the workshops

During the afternoon participants were invited to present their own ideas, suggestions, and solutions to the different problems. In the session about ‘team players versus superstars,’ participants explored how a team should be evaluated. In the session on ‘indicators versus narratives,’ those present thought about replacing the impact factor with a more substantive, qualitative, and individualized approach, enabling scholars to do to justice to their own trajectory, including consideration for the substantive added value of their output. Evaluating scholarly communication and open access publications were examined here as well. The outcomes were then addressed in the plenary discussion. Although 2030 seems very remote, as several speakers emphasized, it is in fact only a decade away. In this concluding plenary discussion the audience repeatedly urged getting to work on the desired culture change now. 

In addition to lovely panoramas, this discussion day yielded a great many concrete actions that can now be implemented and will instigate that desired culture change. Once published, the report of the NWO and ZonMW will reveal which concrete steps these financiers intend to take in the near future.

Antia Wiersma

Tessa Lobbes




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