Position paper: Room for everyone's talent

AYA statement on position paper 'Room for everyone's talent'

As AYA we wholeheartedly support a future with more diverse career perspectives for young scientists. We therefore support the position paper 'Room for everyone's talent' of the VSNU, NWO, NFU and ZonMw as an important first step. The big how remains unanswered however. We are skeptical that a new set of excellence criteria will, as such, reduce work stress. Moreover, we will be vigilant that striving for diversity won’t result in competition in all domains envisioned or unfair competition between scientific domains. 

To promote the debate on reforming scientific careers, we have asked two heads of department, Jan Theeuwes and Jaap van Dieen about the need to reform young scientists’ career paths.

Jaap van Dieen is head of the department of Human Movement Sciences, Faculty of Behavioural and Movement Sciences, VU Amsterdam.

Jan Theeuwes is head of department Experimental and Applied Psychology - Faculty of Bahavioural and Movement Sciences VU University.

foto Jan Theeuwes

How does the current system for defining scientific excellence impact the quality of the department?

Jaap: The effects of the current system have been limited in my opinion, also due to limited mobility in the past, so the composition of the faculty has not been strongly affected. Most faculty members have been appointed before the current system became rather dominant. Also, within our department there has traditionally been a strong emphasis on the ability of faculty to contribute to teaching as well as research. However, the implicit or explicit message in evaluation of faculty members internally and also in the evaluation of grant proposals by funding agencies has resulted in a more individualistic approach undermining teamwork and lowering priority of teaching to some extent.

Jan: The question is of course how you define quality. The department for which I am responsible (Experimental and Applied Psychology of the VU) does very well both in research and teaching. In research we operate at the forefront of science publishing high quality papers that have a large impact. Because of this we attract the best (PhD) students, post-docs and visiting scholars from across the globe. Our teaching is also at a high level: we have great teacher evaluations both at the Bachelor and Master level and constantly try to improve our research master programs. So yes… EAP (and Psychology in general both at UvA and VU) is doing well in the current system. Yet, I realize that the pressure to perform at the department is high. To stay at the top, we expect a lot (from teaching and research). For young researchers the pressure is very high and there is a lot of uncertainty whether they ever will get tenure. In the position paper it is indicated that one of the main reason for implementing the new system is to reduce work stress among the employees.

What are the main obstacles for implementation of a more diverse academic evaluation system?

Jaap: Recognition of other evaluation criteria by peers nationally and internationally, including those reviewing or ranking grant proposals and defining suitable metrics for quality assessment. A more qualitative approach may be more appropriate but might, due to time constraints, loose out easily in competition with simple metrics such as the H-index and numbers of publications and citations. 

Jan: The position paper is very well written. It presents a convincing case. Yet, there are obstacles. Of course we can implement career perspectives for those who want excel in teaching, management, and societal outreach activities, including respected high positions within the university and appropriate top salaries. Yet, the reason that most people work at a university is to do research. Doing research is in my view the most fulfilling aspect of our jobs: simply finding out how things work; to work along with PhD students on problems that nobody ever thought of before. Regardless of the system of recognition and diversification that will be implemented, in the end, doing research will always be the most satisfying and sought after activity in the university. The recognition for research does not come from a university system,  or from the public; recognition for excellent research comes from your peers world-wide and from the intrinsic rewarding activity of doing research. I am afraid that no system will ever change that.

Who will benefit from redefining scientific excellence?

Jaap: First and foremost, team players in the scientific community and, more in the long run, society at large.

Jan: I think that with the redefinition of alternative career paths young researchers may feel less pressure because they know that there are alternative job routes within the university. Undergraduate teaching may also benefit as there is more time to devote to teaching (PhD (and master) teaching should still be done by those who excel in research). I also think that the open science movement (i.e., data sharing, development of open-source code and programs) will benefit as researchers are able to devote more time on this especially when these activities are rewarded. I also think that team science could benefit from redefining scientific excellence even though one should realize that up until now the policy of NWO has always been to stimulate individual performance and excellence in their Veni Vidi Vici program. Also this program has been very successful which does not necessarily argue in favor of team science.

What is the strongest point in the position paper?

Jaap: The position paper does maintain the priority of education and research and the importance of both being intertwined. It acknowledges some of the obstacles and provides helpful directions in addressing them.

Jan: The position paper is convincing. It makes a convincing case that the current pressure to perform (number of papers, grants, H-indexes) is too much and has led, in addition to the work pressure, to many negative side effects (including ego oriented behavior). Yet, we need also to recognize the fact that at least for Psychology, both research and education in the  Netherlands operates at a very high level and belongs to the absolute top worldwide (see latest visitatie-rapport). And yes this comes with a lot of pressure, and the need to perform. Besides all negative side effect, this is also something that the current system has brought us. It is fair to argue that the price we have paid is too high and that we can do with a bit less. I realize that for young people academia is currently very unattractive with many sacrifices and uncertainties. If redefining academic excellence improves the position of young academics then a lot is won.