Universiteit Leiden

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Debating 3 of the 40 propositions about science

Three Dutch scientists - including Professor of Korea Studies Remco Breuker – put forward forty propositions this summer aimed at improving science. The Young Academy Leiden organised a meeting on 18 November to discuss the pamphlet.

In Forty Propositions about Science, Breuker and colleagues posed propositions on such issues as the many temporary employment contracts at Dutch universities and the status of universities of applied sciences. Breuker: 'We wanted to get our ideas lined up and invite everyone to discuss the issues. 'The reactions have been mixed, he said. 'I'm very happy that our Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker said that, although he doesn't agree personally with all the points, the Board of the University believes it's important to have these discussions and therefore contributed financially to the publication of the pamphlet.'

There has been little or no reaction from the political community, Breuker answered the question put by moderator Annemarie Samuels, cultural anthropologist and Vice-Chair of the Young Academy Leiden. Breuker is one of the driving forces behind WOinActie, the platform that is fighting issues such as the high pressure of work and the shortage of research time. He is also a member of the University Council on behalf of FNV Overheid, the union for government employees.

The thirty or so people present were asked to vote on three propositions from Breuker's manifesto, once Breuker had explained the background. After each round of voting, participants discussed the issues with him. 

Proposition: Scientific staff should take back control in managing the university.

Breuker said that he received a lot of criticism for wanting to return to amateurish leadership by academics. 'One colleague, a management specialist, said that I didn't take leadership seriously. It's a profession in its own right.' But his point is that over the past two decades universities have increasingly been managed as if they were businesses. 'We want to see a flatter organisation, managed by scientists who put aside their normal jobs temporarily while involved in managing the university.'

Half of the participants were in agreement - in some cases strong agreement - with this proposition. A quarter disagreed and 21 per cent didn't know. 

One of the attendees who supported the proposition explained his choice: 'I don't know whether academics are the best managers, but what I do know is that the Board should focus more on the value of a university to society, and less on treating students as clients or pushing for the highest possible publication output.'  

Proposition: NWO and the ERC need fundamental reform.

Let NWO (the Dutch Research Council) fund the major, joint and interdisciplinary projects, and allow universities to give their own researchers a basic budget, Breuker advocates. 'And young scientists without a permanent contract?' host Samuels asked. 'NWO certainly should encourage young researchers too. But as things stand now, NWO plays too big a role in determining university strategy.' 

Half of the participants strongly agreed with the proposal to fundamentally reorganise science-funding organisations. A further 22 per cent were generally in agreement and only 6 per cent did not support the proposition.  

One of those who voted strongly in favour of the proposal was a social scientist. She said: 'It's just a lottery, and even if you have a permanent contract you have to go along with it. Internationally, too, it's important to get as many grants as possible. The pressure is enormous.' 

Breuker: 'I've been awarded many grants, but at this point in time I have zero research budget. It's like being a doctor who's not allowed to cure patients. An excellent CV is no guarantee of success, which is a great waste.' One of Breuker's colleagues from the Faculty of Humanities added the frequently heard complaint: 'Research that's not sexy has less chance of being subsidised, and the same applies to just about all research in the humanities.' 

Proposition: Scientists are jointly responsible for the present malaise.

We continue to meet our responsibilities: we teach and take part in subsidy rounds that we heartily despise. We are making it possible for the system to carry on, Breuker claimed. No fewer than 65 of the attendees agreed with this, of whom 15 per cent strongly agreed. Only 10 per cent did not agree. 

One participant, an archaeologist, agreed with the proposition but still voted against it. 'Imagine you work in a factory and you're under a lot of pressure. You need to earn money; you can't just walk away.'

In the chat, someone said that in that case you can go on strike. The social scientist replied: 'A year ago I wanted to take part in the partial strike organised by WOinActie, where we agreed not to work overtime for a month. But I soon realised that my work just piled up and I had to catch up on it in my own time.' 

An assistant professor of political science asked what you can do to change the system. Breuker: 'Talk about it with students. They're often completely unaware of the situation; they only see that you're very busy. Make them aware of what's going on. Put your name on the WOinActie mailing list and come to meetings when you can. Raise important issues where and when you can in the university. Just do what you can, as long as it doesn't land you in a burn-out.'

Text: Rianne Lindhout

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