Veni, what else?
Summer is ending and young researchers are sweating behind their laptops. September 3rd is the deadline for the coveted NWO Veni grant. Last year only 9% of applicants in the Social Sciences and Humanities were successful. So if there’s no Veni… what else?
There are a couple of things you will experience as a researcher and one of these is, unfortunately, rejection. I tried and failed at getting a Veni a couple of years ago, so I know the pain of having your precious ideas and envisioned career path shattered. It has happened again since then, but to be honest, nothing until now has stuck with me as much as that one. Mental health aside – of which other blogs are excellent examples– I remember wondering back then: I do not need to get a Veni per se, but I want to be able to continue with my research ideas. So now what?
I have been fortunate to be surrounded by mentors and colleagues who have pointed me towards other opportunities. At that time, this happened to be mostly collaborative grants. For instance, the KNAW and NWO had funds available to stimulate collaborative research projects for young scientists. Collaboration can be a particularly valuable experience as a young researcher. Not only do you get the unique opportunity to work with excellent (inter-) national researchers, you can also learn from their complementary skills. It may even allow you to take first steps in building your own research lab, because some of these grants include mentoring a PhD-student or postdoc.
I realize that funding options other than Veni are increasingly limited. The next opportunities, such as a highly competitive NWO-Vidi or ERC starting grant, may be your only options for realizing your research ambitions. Not surprisingly,young researchers have called for more funding and collaborative grant opportunities. NWO and ERC policymakers have replied that they think collaborative interdisciplinary research is too risky for junior researchers. Admittedly such work can be hard, but collaborative work also relies on trainable skills. It is therefore important not to stimulate collaboration blindly, but to provide young scientists with the right tools to work in a collaborative science environment. For instance, by nurturing individual skills such as handling conflict, communication, and leadership. This should not start at the PhD level but already in bachelor-level education.
The value of alternative grants
Even if you are able to pursue other grants, it is a fact that not obtaining an individual early-career grant lowers your academic chances. Withnegligible differences in grant proposal quality and scientific impact, Veni recipients were more likely to get a subsequent Vidi grant. Possibly the rejected researchers lacked resources, or were discouraged, but another explanation may be a simple human bias. We all suffer from biases in our decision-making, and one may be that we value alternative grants differently than a Veni. I remember an end-of-year social event in which a leading researcher stated that all collaborative grants could not be mentioned in the congratulation speech – there were just ‘too many of them’ – before continuing to recite a long list of individual grant and prize winners. Although this seems harsh, I remember finding it completely normal at the time. However, undervaluing collaborative work is damaging to science and damaging to building the personal confidence needed to continue in the academic race.
The right support
So where should we go from here? A clear goal for universities is to actively support young researchers. This could include pointing towards grant opportunities [Yes, not just Veni], as well as providing an inspiring climate for building collaborative research skills [Yes, also for young researchers]. Grant agencies such as NWO should play an important role in reducing biases in committees’ decision-making. Explicit training could be a tool and is already advised in relation to gender biases in committee members.
Until then, I hope this blog will strengthen you in your perseverance. Keep an eye out for getting your research career started, because science is too good to pass up. Go get ‘em!