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The Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, which operates the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope, is part of NWO.

The Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, which operates the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope, is part of NWO.

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Overhaul of Dutch funding agency triggers uproar

AMSTERDAM—A government plan to radically reform the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), a major research funding agency in the Netherlands, is causing an uproar among scientists. Many say that the attempt to streamline the agency—which a 2013 evaluation called a “disorderly patchwork”—is a threat to basic science and will give nonscientists too much power in the distribution of research grants.

"NWO must remain an organization for, and managed by, researchers," wrote the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) in a statement last month. "Letting go of that principle means a serious threat to the quality of scientific research in the Netherlands."

The reform plan is part of the 2025 - Vision for Science choices for the future, a broad policy document issued by the Dutch Cabinet on 25 November that won plaudits for several other proposals. KNAW and other organizations praised its proposals to prioritize the country's scientific goals in a "National Research Agenda" to be produced next year, to reduce the pressure on scientists by putting quality over quantity in peer review and to boost large-scale research infrastructure. But the government's plans for NWO, a semiautonomous agency with a €625 million annual budget, have become the target of a growing barrage of criticism and the subject of a lively debate on KNAW's website.

Currently, NWO is divided into nine science divisions—from social sciences and medical research to physics—that each have a separate budget, their own leadership made up of active scientists, and considerable autonomy. In contrast, NWO's central governing board is relatively weak. In addition, the agency manages eight semi-independent institutes. That structure is too complex, hampers interdisciplinary research, and makes aligning the agency’s efforts with national priorities difficult, two top government advisers said in a report made public along with 2025 - Vision (Dutch). (They also criticized NWO’s “meager European and international position.”)

The advisers' solution, adopted by the government: Dissolve the many science divisions and let a new, more powerful Executive Board have the final say on all programming and budget allocation decisions. Made up of three full-time managers, the board would be advised by a variety of councils representing science, society, and business. (University rectors would be an important voice on scientific matters.) The future of NWO's institutes, meanwhile, would be decided later.

The proposal comes against a backdrop of growing worries that basic research in the Netherlands may be neglected in favor of short-term, applied research to boost innovation—an idea that scientists say is short-sighted because no one knows which research areas will bring the big breakthroughs of the future. Already, €275 million—more than 40%—of NWO's budget goes to the so-called top sectors program, initiated by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs in 2011 to bolster innovation in nine key economic areas—including water, food, and logistics—in which the corporate world plays a major role.

Leiden University physicist Carlo Beenakker says that NWO is actually doing well and that the issues flagged by the advisers have no basis in fact. "These are problems made up by people who look at it form a large distance," he says. Beenakker signed an 8 December rejecting the proposals, together with 68 other winners of NWO's prestigious multimillion euro Spinoza Prize, which is awarded to just three or four researchers annually. (Only four laureates didn't sign the letter.)

NWO’s own response to the 2025 - Vision document does not take a position on the controversy. Jet Bussemaker, the country's minister of education, culture, and science, is on vacation this week and not available for comment, a ministry representative says. In a recent blog post, however, Bussemaker said that some of the critics of the Vision document were "playing fast and loose with the truth" and stressed that many of their worries—including those about the fate of curiosity-driven research—are unfounded. The Dutch House of Representatives will debate the issue in January.