Dutch University Cuts Lead to Biologist Losses

In a move that has drawn international protests, Leiden University in the Netherlands has responded to governmental budget cuts by firing a group of tenured evolutionary biology researchers. A petition protesting the dismissals questions why molecular biologists within the same department were spared, and some of the fired staff are vowing to bring lawsuits for the unexpected dismissals. 

Like other universities in the Netherlands, Leiden is facing a smaller annual budget after science minister Ronald Plasterk’s decision last year to shift €100 million in research funding to the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, the main grant-giving institution in the country. By forcing scientists to compete for grants, the move aims to raise the Netherlands’ overall research quality. But the changes in funding are having an impact on the operational expenses of universities.

In Leiden, the budget cuts have led to the dismissal of eight evolutionary biologists, including tenured professors, and the better part of the Department of Biology’s technical staff. The protest petition, circulating in the Netherlands and online, notes that molecular biologists within the same department will be unaffected and calls the favoring of that discipline over evolutionary biology an “alarming national trend.” More than 2000 people have signed the petition in its first 2 days, says its creator, Isabelle Olivieri of the University of Montpellier 2, president of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology.

Frietson Galis (pictured, credit: Joris van Alphen), the president of the European Society for Evolutionary Developmental Biology,

is one of the Leiden staff members who received a termination letter from the university shortly before Christmas. “Evolutionary biology is not in good shape in the Netherlands,” says Galis, noting that the dismissals will wipe out Leiden’s expertise in theoretical biology and advanced population modeling. She and her colleagues say that they weren’t given a satisfactory explanation for how those fired were chosen. They promise not to go without a fight and have already met with lawyers.

The scientific consequences of the redundancies go beyond the walls of Leiden University. Menno Schilthuizen, a research scientist at Naturalis, the National Museum of Natural History, says that the restructuring at Leiden will negatively affect the creation of the Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity, which was counting on the scientific expertise of the staff now laid off. On the whole, interest in evolutionary biology is rising because of biodiversity and conservation issues, Schilthuizen says, but “it seems that the universities are falling a bit behind.”

Leiden University protested against Plasterk’s decision to shift funds, says Sjoerd Verduyn Lunel, dean of its Faculty of Sciences. But faced with real budget cuts, “we had to make some difficult choices,” he adds. The decision to target the evolutionary biology section “is sad for the people affected,” says Verduyn Lunel, but it’s better to concentrate the budget cuts in one area than to spread financial difficulties across all groups. Moreover, he notes, the restructuring means that the much larger evolutionary biology section will be on par with molecular biology in terms of staff numbers.  

Who to let go was a strategic choice made by the department without external interference, says Verduyn Lunel. He stressed that scientific merit was not the reason, because all research groups at the department have received excellent reviews from its external evaluation committee. Verduyn Lunel is confident Leiden will maintain its scientific reputation. “The biology department is still one of the largest in the faculty, and the evolutionary biology section is certainly not dead,” he says.

Leiden is not the only Dutch university taking drastic measures against budget cuts. Rens Voesenek, dean of the Department of Biology at Utrecht, tells Science that his department will also soon restructure. In practice, this means firing 20 staff members in May and closing down the Endocrinology & Metabolism and Toxicology & Neurobiology sections. "Taking a bit from everybody is not an option," he says. In Utrecht, the terminated positions were selected according to a strategic vision, the quality of the sections, and the national context. For instance, Amsterdam and Nijmegen both have top international neurobiology efforts, notes Voesenek, so Utrecht decided that its team in that area couldn't excel without heavy investment of unavailable money.