Dutch Shift Approach to Funding

AMSTERDAM—The Dutch government is moving toward a system of funding large research institutions by supporting a limited number of broadly defined goals rather than by issuing grants to thousands of individual investigators. The change is expected to give the institutions greater independence to allocate funds and make the process more responsive both to the needs of the scientific community and to national priorities. The current system encourages conflict between scientists and government

By | March 23, 1987

AMSTERDAM—The Dutch government is moving toward a system of funding large research institutions by supporting a limited number of broadly defined goals rather than by issuing grants to thousands of individual investigators. The change is expected to give the institutions greater independence to allocate funds and make the process more responsive both to the needs of the scientific community and to national priorities.

The current system encourages conflict between scientists and government bureaucrats over individual allocations, said E. van Spiegel, director-general of the Division of Science Policy in the Ministry of Education and Science.

"The civil servant has the opportunity—often the duty—to occupy himself with details," said Spiegel. "Travel expenses, for example, may be an insignificant part of the total budget. But they can cause enormous fights within an organization about whether each professor has been given his proper share."

Under the new system, the government sets broad goals and leaves to the institution the task of developing strategies to meet these goals. Organizations will be free to decide how to disburse their funds among additional staff, new equipment, improvements in their physical plant, or to meet other needs. The practice of buying equipment in December with funds remaining in an expiring budget will become a thing of the past, Spiegel said.

In the past few years the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research, the largest research organization in the country with a staff of some 5,000 scientists and technicians, has converted successfully to the new system. The five major technological institutions, covering energy, aviation, soil mechanics, water works and maritime research, are expected to follow its lead.

The changes in the Dutch system are part of a worldwide effort to reshape the relationship between governments and private institutions. "It touches a general trend in government policy," said Minister of Education and Science W. Deetman. "Foremost in this is the wish for government to operate more at a distance."

The minister said that the system of "output funding," if proved successful, may be extended to universities as well. But he acknowledged that any such system must take into account the freedom of university researchers to continue to pursue fundamental research with no obvious applications.

Some scientists fear that the quality of research will drop if institutions begin to emphasize projects with immediate financial payoffs. D. van der Meer, director of the National Hospitals Institute and a member of a committee that in 1985 recommended the present shift toward output funding, acknowledged that risk but cited a serious weakness in the current system.

"It is no less wrong when researchers wrongly think that our major problems will be solved only if they are allowed complete freedom to achieve important breakthroughs in their field," van der Meer told a recent conference on research funding. "Of course the researcher must have the freedom to explore how best to approach a problem. However, it must be clear all the time which problems must be solved."

de Kok is a freelance science writer in The Netherlands.

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