Ground-breaking research under pressure due to changes in research funding
The academic research performed by universities is funded in two ways:
- Historically, the research funding that universities receive from the government has been their most important source of funding (direct government funding). In theory, there were no strings attached to this money: the universities themselves decided which research projects to spend it on.
- In recent years, indirect government funding and contract research funding have increased in importance. For these types of funding, researchers must submit research proposals to external parties (e.g. the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research [NWO], the EU or companies). These parties then decide which projects, and which researchers, will receive funding.
VSNU is advocating for additional, more balanced funding
In recent years, the ratio between the three different types of funding has undergone a significant change. As a percentage of the gross domestic product, the research portion of direct government funding has shrunk substantially over the past few decades. An ever-increasing proportion of our researchers are working on projects funded by external parties; an ever-decreasing number are working on government-funded research. The VSNU is advocating for additional investment in direct government funding to strengthen research funding and redress the balance.
The scope for new and ground-breaking research is limited
The fact that universities are increasingly dependent on external sources of funding has consequences for research and for researchers. A significant disadvantage is that there is less scope for researchers to start fundamental, independent research projects of which the results are highly uncertain but which could potentially be revolutionary. Very few external backers are prepared to finance this kind of risky, ground-breaking research. Furthermore, the contribution from external backers for research projects often does not cover the full cost: funding sources such as the NWO and the EU pay only a portion of the actual cost. The most recent study shows that in 2012, universities had to contribute an average of €740 for every €1000 of external funding. Because universities are very successful at securing commissions to conduct research on behalf of third parties, the level of funds they have to ‘match’ is constantly increasing. In 2012, €1.164 billion in direct government funding was used to match funds from other sources; this equates to 65% of the research portion of direct government funding. As a consequence, the portion of direct government funding available for independent, ground-breaking research projects is dwindling.
Researchers are suffering the consequences
For researchers, the increasing importance of external sources of funding means they have to invest a lot more time in writing research proposals, even though the chance of an application being approved is steadily decreasing. As a result, researchers spend more and more time writing research proposals that are not going to secure funding.
A second significant consequence is that it is increasingly difficult to build up long-term knowledge with a permanent research team. Universities try to give researchers permanent contracts wherever possible. However, indirect government and contract research funding is by definition temporary, and usually tied to a particular person or project. When a project ends, it is highly uncertain whether a university will have enough money to keep employing the researchers involved. The increase in insecure, temporary research funding goes hand in hand with a rise in researcher positions tied to particular projects.