10 things I learned while working for the Dutch science funding council (NWO)


The way science is currently funded is very controversial. During the last 6 months I was on a break from my PhD and worked for the organisation funding science in the Netherlands (NWO). These are 10 insights I gained.


1) Belangenverstrengeling

This is the first word I learned when arriving in The Hague. There is an anal obsession with avoiding (any potential for) conflicts of interest (belangenverstrengeling in Dutch). It might not seem a big deal to you, but it is a big deal at NWO.


2) Work ethic

Work e-mails on Sunday evening? Check. Unhealthy deadline obsession? Check. Stories of burn-out diagnoses? Check. In short, I found no evidence for the mythical low work ethic of NWO. My colleagues seemed to be in a perfectly normal, modern, semi-stressful job.


3) Perks

While the career prospects at NWO are somewhat limited, there are some nice perks to working in The Hague including: an affordable, good cantine, free fruit all day, subsidised in-house gym, free massage (unsurprisingly, with a waiting list from hell), free health check … The work atmosphere is, perhaps as a result, quite pleasant.


4) Closed access

Incredible but true, NWO does not have access to the pay-walled research literature it funds. Among other things, I was tasked with checking that research funds were appropriately used. You can imagine that this is challenging if the end-product of science funding (scientific articles) is beyond reach. Given a Herculean push to make all Dutch scientific output open access, this problem will soon be a thing of the past.


5) Peer-review

NWO itself does not generally assess grant proposals in terms of content (except for very small grants). What it does is organise peer-review, very similar to the peer-review of journal articles. My impression is that the peer-review quality is similar if not better at NWO compared to the journals that I have published in. NWO has minimum standards for reviewers and tries to diversify the national/scientific/gender background of the reviewer group assigned to a given grant proposal. I very much doubt that this is the case for most scientific journals.


6) NWO peer-reviewed

NWO itself also applies for funding, usually to national political institutions, businesses, and the EU. Got your grant proposal rejected at NWO? Find comfort in the thought that NWO itself also gets rejected.


7) Funding decisions in the making

In many ways my fears for how it is decided who gets funding were confirmed. Unfortunately, I cannot share more information other than to say: science has a long way to go before focussing rewards on good scientists doing good research.


8) Not funding decisions

I worked on grants which were not tied to some societal challenge, political objective, or business need. The funds I helped distribute are meant to simply facilitate the best science, no matter what that science is (often blue sky research, Vernieuwingsimpuls for people in the know). Approximately 10% of grant proposals receive funding. In other words, bad apples do not get funding. Good apples also do not get funding. Very good apples equally get zero funding. Only outstanding/excellent/superman apples get funding. If you think you are good at what you do, do not apply for grant money through the Vernieuwingsimpuls. It’s a waste of time. If, on the other hand, you haven’t seen someone as excellent as you for a while, then you might stand a chance.


9) Crisis response

Readers of this blog will be well aware that the field of psychology is currently going through something of a revolution related to depressingly low replication rates of influential findings (Open Science Framework, 2015; Etz & Vandekerckhove, 2016; Kunert, 2016). To my surprise, NWO wants to play its part to overcome the replication crisis engulfing science. I arrived at a fortunate moment, presenting my ideas of the problem and potential solutions to NWO. I am glad NWO will set aside money just for replicating findings.


10) No civil servant life for me

Being a junior policy officer at NWO turned out to be more or less the job I thought it would be. It was monotonous, cognitively relaxing, and low on responsibilities. In other words, quite different to doing a PhD. Other PhD students standing at the precipice of a burn out might also want to consider this as an option to get some breathing space. For me, it was just that, but not more than that.

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This blog post does not represent the views of my former or current employers. NWO did not endorse this blog post. As far as I know, NWO doesn’t even know that this blog post exists.

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Etz, A., & Vandekerckhove, J. (2016). A Bayesian Perspective on the Reproducibility Project: Psychology PLOS ONE, 11 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0149794

Kunert R (2016). Internal conceptual replications do not increase independent replication success. Psychonomic bulletin & review PMID: 27068542

Open Science Collaboration (2015). Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science Science, 349 (6251) DOI: 10.1126/science.aac4716

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