This is my farewell message to the Maagdenhuismovement. From the end of August I will be fully employed as a teacher in secondary education. That won’t leave me time for other things like international professional organizations and higher education politics. So to everyone involved in the movement, thanks for all you have done. It may not be so visible to the outside world, but things have changed and I am proud of you all.
At the end of my research career as a biomedical engineer in the AMC and after I left, I was, as you know, involved in higher education politics. At first mainly because I saw that things were going wrong and I wanted to try to help remedy some of the problems. Later within the movement I have tried to give input from my own perspective, because that was rather different from most other people. It was a stroke of genius from the ‘rendementsdenken’ infected management to time my ‘sabbatical’ in the period that we had a massive uprising against the governing of the university. There is no way I can get a grant anymore, and I need at least a couple of hundred thousand euros to buy myself a new job. Knowing that I would never return to research I could speak rather freely about sensitive issues. E.g. talking about scientific misconduct and fraud are essentially taboo in the research community. You cannot discuss misconduct in a way that does not affect your own position. The closer it happens to your own position, the more damage you suffer yourself when you bring it up. Whistleblowers within
the academic community are not very well protected. See also Rudolf’s case.
Obviously, I want to take this last opportunity to talk about some
things that I feel important. Let me apologize first for the length of
this post and that most of what I will be discussing is obviously
related more to biomedical research. In other faculties things may be
quite different, although in a sense what I propose would bring my type
of research more in line with how research is done in other faculties.
Let me start with an observation. Having read various reports and being
present at a lot of meetings, I find it remarkable how political
decision making takes place. Too often input for the discussions is
provided by groups of experts. Not experts in the field at hand or
people doing the actual work, but ‘general experts’. To name two
examples close to my heart. There was a report of the KNAW on new
technology in health care that was written by a group of experts that
did not include a single person with a technical background. The other
is the Onderwijs2032 report, where everybody in the Netherlands could
‘contribute’ but the input was filtered by a group of experts, resulting
in something that is utterly useless and at times even harmful in my new
job in secondary education. My conclusion is that the closer a report is
to my own field the less sense it seems to make to me. If I am not alone
in that observation that indicates quite a serious problem.
On the RvT: we apparently have a new one. At least the new chair seems
to be more independent from business than the old one, so there might
finally be some resistance to market forces. I do hope that she takes
her role more serious than Nicolai did and have more interactions with
the university itself. The old RvT seemed to have the idea that the RvT
should govern at a distance and the best way to do that was to not know
what was really happening in the university. Note that the fact that she
is appointed only at the RvT-UvA and not the RvT-HvA is in violation of
the regulations for both institutions.
Often the best and most original research is done when people combine
forces from different disciplines. Even better when they become friends
in the process. OTOH bad research (and education and support) often
result if people only appoint friends and family. I have seen examples
of both during my career. For me the most important issue for the new
organization of the UvA is how it to balance these forces. So what I
would like to see in the final report of the D&D is how the structure(s)
they propose will promote cooperation between researchers while at the
same time there is a mechanism to prevent and/or break up kingdoms
(‘koninkrijkjes’ in dutch, there is probably a better english word for
One of the reasons I lost my job, (or at least why it was impossible to
fulfill the promise of offering me a permanent job when my temporary job
would finally run out), is the conversion of structural money into soft
money. I have said it before, but there is no harm in repeating it,
competition for money is diminishing the quality of research. Though it
is not directly the competition itself, but the fact that the money is
extracted from budgets that used to be available for fixed positions.
And that it moves money into projects that have easily quantifiable
results. Those that do not believe that, point to the fact that we are
publishing more and often in journals with a high impact factor. One of
the fundamental problems with impact factors is that a paper can be
often cited because either it is innovative work or because it is
similar to work that is done by a large group of others. Frequently one
of the criteria to be able to defend your thesis nowadays is that it
contains at least a number of published articles in journals above a
certain threshold impact factor. You can not expect that every
promovendus has 2 or 3 original ideas, so it is clear what kind of
articles they need to write and thus what research priorities they have.
Talking about publications, the main point of publications is that you
want your peers to show what you have done. For this, they need to be
able to find it and have an idea about the quality without having to
read it all. That is what traditionally was the role of journals. They
would select good papers that fitted best in their scope, so when you
read that journal you knew what you were going to get. With the internet
there are many ways to circumvent the journals to be found, but there is
no accepted way yet to establish the quality of a self published paper.
Yet, I think we should be heading in that direction, self publishing and
publishing in ‘journals’ run by your own institution or university.
Costs are one aspect, but more importantly because of the way the
commercial journals work. Research that does not result in at least a
publon will not be documented.
There are still several hundreds of Gigabytes of undocumented, rare ECG
data on a few hard disks from the work I have done or was involved in,
some as old as 20 years. From a large study I did in over one hundred
patients, I have only published a few case studies. Yet I know that some
of that data could still be relevant for several other groups. But a
description of the data would not be publishable in any sufficiently
high ranking journal. If we had had a system where I could have
published it locally, this data would not have been lost. There is also
the subject of how to store and publish data. Also a hairy problem, and
one that won’t be solved by having experts looking at it or by leaving
it to market forces. But that is another discussion in itself.
Another recent study I was partially involved in combines data from
several techniques to study how light has an influence on awakening.
Technically a tricky subject. I know that the PhD students have learned
a lot about doing research from it, in particular how complex it is to
control all variables. As such it serves as a proof of their ability to
do independent research, but they have trouble publishing it, because
results are not clear cut. But not publishing may result in not getting
their PhD. This does not make sense when you know what a PhD thesis
should be, i.e. a proof that the candidate can do good research by him
That brings me to a final remark, professors and other group leaders
need to think for themselves again. It is nice that chapters are
published, but you need to be able to judge the quality of work
yourself, independent of that. And if a researcher has trouble finding a
new research job because the other group only looks at publications in
commercial journals and received grants, they should write support
letters to explain the qualities of that researcher. When more research
is again done by experienced persons with a fixed position they may have
actually time for that.
Take care of the University during my absence,