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Report
09 July 2018

What motivates researchers?

Research excellence is still a priority
Quality Workload Valorisation
This report discusses the results of a survey conducted among researchers working at one of the Dutch research universities, university hospitals or universities of applied sciences, at one of the NWO or Academy institutes, or at one of the Dutch public knowledge organisations.

Regardless of their institute’s mission, researchers derive much of their motivation from their ability to conduct research of outstanding quality.

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Summary

This report discusses the results of a survey conducted among researchers working at one of the Dutch research universities, university hospitals or universities of applied sciences, at one of the NWO or KNAW institutes, or at one of the Dutch public knowledge organisations. It was carried out at the request of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science and builds on a survey conducted in 2013 The conclusions below reveal what motivates researchers.

Research of outstanding quality is a priority

Regardless of their institute’s mission, researchers derive much of their motivation from their ability to conduct research of outstanding quality. Every institution pursues objectives related to the quality of research. Researchers working at universities, university hospitals and NWO and Academy institutes identified ‘being able to conduct research of outstanding quality’ as their most important objective. For researchers at universities of applied sciences and public knowledge organisations, that is ‘conducting socially relevant research’.

Research excellence is also one of the most important drivers of international mobility. That is true for both foreign researchers who currently work in the Netherlands and for Dutch researchers who have spent time working abroad.

Overtime and less time for research than agreed

On average, researchers work overtime by more than a quarter of the hours they are contracted to work. By their own account, they spend less time on research than agreed internally and more time on teaching and on management and organisational tasks, regardless of their employing organisation. Women are more likely than men to indicate that they spend more time on teaching and less time on research than agreed.

The discrepancy between actual and agreed time is greatest among assistant, associate and full professors at the universities. Assistant professors mainly spend more time on teaching, and full professors on management and organisational tasks. Associate professors say that both tasks take up more of their time than agreed.

Little time for knowledge transfer

Researchers consider teaching and knowledge transfer as less important personal objectives. In their eyes, knowledge transfer to external parties is an organisational objective. They spend only a small proportion of their time on knowledge transfer, i.e. an average of 8% for researchers at universities of applied sciences and public knowledge organisations, and an average of 4% for researchers at the other organisations. Nevertheless, they themselves see the social relevance of their work as important. Forty-two percent regard ‘conducting socially relevant research’ as an important objective. Sixty-eight percent think it is important for businesses and public institutions to make good use of their research results.

The focus on knowledge transfer and on the social relevance of research is greater at universities of applied sciences and public knowledge organisations than at the other institutions. When asked to describe their motives, researchers at these institutions are more likely to choose knowledge-transfer objectives, and they are also more likely to indicate that they involve non-research parties in their work. These parties, they claim, also make more use of research results.

Similarities and differences between surveys

These results differ very little from those of the previous survey in 2013. The ability to conduct research of outstanding quality remains the most important objective for researchers working at research universities, university hospitals and NWO and Academy institutes, and they still feel that they devote too little time to it. Neither has there been much change with regard to knowledge transfer; researchers continue to consider the social relevance of their research important, but they also still spend little time (about 4%) on it. 

We see that small changes have occurred in university researchers’ time commitments and the criteria against which they believe employers appraise their performance. Full and assistant professors spend a bit more time on management and organisational tasks than before (3.5% more). The proportion of time that assistant professors devote to teaching increased by an average of 5% in 2017, while among doctoral candidates there was a 2% increase. There was also a 5% increase in the frequency with which researchers at universities chose ‘teaching’ as one of their most important objectives. University researchers also cited ‘teaching' more often as a performance indicator, as well as the amount of applied knowledge that they produce.


Please cite as:
Koens, L., R. Hofman and J. de Jonge (2018). What motivates researchers? – Research excellence is still a priority. The Hague: Rathenau Instituut.

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Conclusion

Time commitment

  • In many cases, a researcher’s time commitment does not comply with the internal agreements made. In particular, researchers devote more time to teaching and management than agreed.
  • Researchers feel satisfied with their actual time commitment, except those who are on the permanent staff of a university (assistant, associate and full professors). They also work the most overtime.
  • There is a gender difference. Women are more likely than men to be dissatisfied with the amount of time they devote to teaching, especially female assistant and full professors.

Objectives and appraisal

  • In this section, we see a clear difference between researcher objectives at UAS and PKOs on the one hand and at universities, university hospitals and NWO and Academy institutes on the other.
  • The organisational objectives also differ, and researcher appraisal is based on different performance indicators. At PKOs and UAS, client satisfaction and applied knowledge are emphasised. At the NWO and Academy institutes, university hospitals and universities, the quality and number of peer-reviewed publications are the most important yardsticks.

Knowledge transfer

  • The difference between personal and organisational objectives is not reflected in any focus on either basic or applied research. Researchers in most organisations consider their work mainly as a combination of basic and applied research.
  • The differences between organisations are, however, apparent when it comes to the influence other parties exercise on the research and how much they utilise the results. It is clear that stakeholders are closely involved in research at all the institutions. The influence of the national government is most obvious at the PKOs, however, and the influence of professionals in the field is strongest at the UAS.

International mobility

  • There are researchers with international experience in every type of institution, but the universities and the NWO and Academy institutes employ far more mobile researchers than the other organisations.
  • Researchers consider it important to gain international experience.
  • The relatively large number of assistant professors who have gained international experience (compared with associate and full professors) indicates that international mobility is increasing.
  • The main reasons for going abroad are international experience, career opportunities and being able to work with top researchers. These are also the reasons that bring foreign researchers to the Netherlands.
  • Personal or family reasons are by far the most important reason to return to the Netherlands.