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Scientific excellence

fact sheet
15 December 2023
Academic careers

Photo: Corné Sparidaens/Hollandse Hoogte

Academia is a competitive business. Researchers value each others’ contributions to the production of knowledge in their field and are therefore always keen to be the first to publish a new discovery. Researchers also compete with each other for scholarships and grants, publication in academic journals and for the limited number of tenured positions at universities and research institutions. In this factsheet we look at the competition in science for higher positions and tenure and person oriented financing.

In short

  • The necessity to distinguish yourself as an excellent scientist has increased in recent years.
  • First, because competition for higher positions and permanent employment contracts has increased.
  • Second, because the need for personal funding has become more important, while the succes rate of getting a NWO grant has declined.

Competition occurs at various levels, by various means. Individual researchers can distinguish themselves in their publications, and through citation of their work by other researchers. Academic prizes and prestigious scholarships are also an indicator of excellence. A grant from the European Research Council (ERC) gives a researcher the resources to perform new research, but it is also an acknowledgement that the recipient has reached the top of their field. 

Although the government can influence the intensity of the competition, it is researchers who define the criteria for and indicators of excellence. Competition between individual researchers is, after all, primarily shaped by researchers themselves in Dutch Research Council (NWO) assessment committees, in staff recruitment and selection procedures and in decisions as to who should be given tenure. Government policy sets the parameters, such as the overall budget for individual scholarships, but academics themselves decide on the exact criteria on which performance is measured by citation scores and the parameters based on them.

Two developments show how competition has intensified over the past few decades. First, the competition for promotion and tenure has increased and second, though individual funding is becoming more common, the likelihood of being awarded a grant by the NWO has shrunk.

This implies that academics are under more pressure to distinguish themselves.

Competition for promotion and tenure

Competition for promotion to more senior positions – most of which are tenured – has intensified because the number of doctorate candidates and postdocs has risen, while the number of university lectureships, senior university lectureships and professorships has remained more or less the same. This implies that academics are under more pressure to distinguish themselves.

The necessity to distinct yourself as a researcher, is also reflected in the number of tenured and temporary positions for researchers at universities. The increase of temporary appointments leads to more pressure on young researches to gain a permanent contract (see also our publication about temporary contracts).

Individual funding

Another trend is the advent of ‘excellence policy’: the government’s policy of selectively offering the best academics extra support. The most important instruments for this are individual grants available from NWO (Innovational Research Incentives Scheme) and the European Research Council, the Spinoza Prize, the Gravitation Programme and the Top Research Schools. An ability to obtain individual funding has become a key factor in acquiring tenure at Dutch universities.

In recent years the supply of research grants has not kept pace with demand. Competition has therefore intensified, as can be seen in the success rate of applications for NWO grants. The success rate in the 2004-2007 period was above 30%. It then drops to 22% in 2011. Subsequently, the percentage stabilizes at around a quarter of the applications. In recent years, the award percentage has varied between 25% and 31%. In 2022 the percentage is 28%.