Making diversity work in international research and research management

Why researchers and research managers across Europe should look towards the Netherlands

The Netherlands is home to several great research-intensive universities, and the country has been at the forefront on many matters when it comes to research policy. And now they have done it again with their “National action plan for greater diversity and inclusion in higher education and research”.

Researchers and research managers across Europe would do well to understand the implications of this plan as we feel certain that similar strategies will spread either through national processes or through the European Research Area (ERA). And for good reason. The topic of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) has been gaining both traction and importance in recent years, without many visible results. In this action plan all the major players in the higher education sector in the Netherlands* have come together and shaken hands on supporting each other in moving this topic forward.

This action plan was not developed because they felt pity for minority groups. In the opening of the action plan it is made clear that this is about ensuring the highest possible quality of education and research by securing an inclusive, diverse and safe learning and working environment in which everyone has the opportunity to flourish. It continues to say: “Achieving diversity in both research content and among the people conducting research will raise educational and research standards throughout the field.” It finally says that at the bottom line, the steps taken towards full diversity and inclusion are steps to assure the future of the sector.

That is the right way to look at diversity and they elaborate on this when they describe how this will help address global challenges, sustainable development, and the welfare of the population. The Dutch partners show that they understand that research institutions that do not reflect the diversity of the society are limited in terms of quality and impact. Therefore the action plan focuses on different factors including leadership, structure, methods, career paths, recruitment and culture.   

The timeframe for the action plan is 2025 and the plan has five goals:

  1. Embed diversity more effectively in existing instruments
  2. Monitor diversity more widely
  3. Establish an awards system to provide frameworks and set the direction for policy
  4. Bring together and support institutional diversity plans
  5. Establish a national centre of excellence.

Of interest to researchers are the mentions of diversity assessment of research proposals, the development of appropriate indicators in the field, the wish to monitor diversity on a structural level and the opening of the Netherlands to participating in the European charter CASPER or adapting charters such as the UK’s Athena SWAN charter. This clearly indicates that they are not playing around and will not be satisfied with generic paragraphs about good intentions regarding diversity in research proposals. They want to see real change. The only questions are: How soon? And how soon will other European countries adapt similar action plans?

We certainly intend to follow this process closely, publish more articles and get some interviews for our podcast with different actors in the HE sector in the Netherlands to get their perspectives on the action plan as it unfolds. To keep up with this subscribe to our monthly newsletter on top of the page.

*The organisations behind the action plan are: The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW), Dutch Research Council (NWO), Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), Dutch Network of Women Professors (LNVH), National Network of Diversity Officers (LanDO), Expertise Centre for Diversity Policy (ECHO), PhD Network Netherlands (PNN) and PostdocNL.


The European Research & Innovation Days: What we learned about diversity and internationalisation.

Let’s be honest – what we all are waiting for is the launch of Horizon Europe. I still remember the craze leading up to the launch of Horizon 2020. In “The European Research & Innovation Days 2020” we got a glimpse of where it’s all heading.

There will be plenty of others who have written and talked about the overall policy development, thematic changes and changes within tools presented during the three-day online event. In this article we will sum up what we learned about diversity and internationalisation. Both themes played a significant role as important tools for scientific development in several sessions. We have gathered the main conclusions and added our reflections, the potential problems we see and what you should look out for in the coming months.

A recurring metaphor was the idea of the research and innovation “eco-system”. It nicely covers career paths, the role of universities, researcher mobility and the overall connection between the different funding schemes etc. It makes sense, and a more coherent view is good, but as we will show below, the metaphor is not without its problems.

The eco-system idea was also at the centre of the Commissioner’s mantra, as she presented her 3 Ps, 3 Is and 3 Cs:

  • People – Planet – Prosperity
  • Ideas – Infrastructure – Impact
  • Curiosity – Citizens – Collaboration

They all link well together, and there is a vision, yet, we also know that eco systems are fragile and consists of a multitude of small parts that must all work. Framing it as an eco-system clarifies the interconnectedness of the system. The revealed connections, or lack thereof, can help create more cohesive eco-systems, which of course is good, but they can also highlight culture problems or reveal where different agendas might push in different directions or even be on confrontational trajectories.  

Below we have collected our thoughts in short thematic paragraphs. Do you agree? 

On Gender

From 2022 it will not be enough to include generic paragraphs on the good intentions when it comes to addressing gender equality in proposals to Horizon Europe. The Commission wants action, and so applications must be able to present institutional gender equality plans. And not only must it be a public document; alongside the plan there should be resources for implementation and address topics such as the organisational culture, leadership and recruitment.

This will be a welcome push to have universities focus on a problem where too little has happened. Most universities probably have a policy, but do they remember where they put it? Does it come with resources? And if not, will everybody be ready for 2022?

On China

In a surprisingly blunt session on the EU-China collaboration it was made clear from director-general Jean-Eric Paquet that the collaboration was unbalanced both when it came to money and accessibility. China don’t want to collaborate on research topics where they are in lead, and European researchers don’t have access to China to the same extent as Chinese researchers have access to Europe.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out, especially in light of a potential second Trump presidency in the US and a post-Brexit UK. Will that lead to further global isolation or will it force EU and China into each other’s arms?

The most interesting comment was probably at the end when the director-general said that we need to understand China better. China understood us, but we still didn’t quite get China. We think this applies both on a policy level and on individual level, and it will be a core skill in future research and research management to understand Chinese culture on all levels to get a fruitful scientific collaboration with Chinese researchers and universities.

On regional players

What could be a challenge here is the call for more regional engagement. Universities are undoubtedly key regional players, and a stronger collaboration with regional and not only national policy makers is important, but we look with concern towards Poland where national and regional authorities have declared cities and regions LGBT free zones. How are universities expected to navigate this while also applying for EU funding and collaborating across borders? It seems to require an unheard-of level of organisational schizophrenia that isn’t beneficial to anyone.

On associated countries

In this session a video was shown aimed at possible associated countries convincing them to be part of Horizon Europe. It was interesting to hear how the term “likeminded countries” was used continuously.  The video showed a very diverse world in terms of gender, age, ability, race and sexuality – probably more so than most university employees would recognize from their university.

What is of particular interest here is the draft for the new grant agreement for Horizon Europe where article 14 is about “values” and 14,2 states: “The beneficiaries must commit to ensure the respect of basic EU values (such as respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and human rights include rights of minorities).”

It might be that beneficiaries in several member states would probably have to cross their fingers behind their backs when signing this – but this would be the case for plenty of beneficiaries in associated countries as well.

How will the Commission and the European Commission enforce this? What will be of most importance when countries become associated countries? And if money and the fear of losing the technology race wins, what signal will that send to the minority groups in Europe? As in many other cases there are no easy answers here, but we recommend that you keep an eye on developments.

On citizens

In several sessions there was a focus on implementation in society, citizen science, involving the public, societal challenges and in the session on foresight we were told that the focus of R&I foresight is no longer mainly technology but societal transformation. One key point was that those who are already vulnerable are now more vulnerable in societies across Europe.

That final point begs the question: What is this singular “public”? The “society”? And what “citizens”? I’m not questioning the intentions but talking about these things in the singular and also insisting on having diversity on the agenda feels a little like having your cake and eating it too.

I know that civic engagement in research can be difficult enough as it is, and including diversity as a factor doesn’t make it easier, but it is a question of cohesion and the trustworthiness of science to address all parts of society, not for minorities to adjust to what makes it easier for science. We’re waiting for the Commission to elaborate on that as this is not a question on policy, but a question of tools and perspective of the individual researcher, and why? It must be dealt with in many different ways.

On careers

This section is a tricky one as it will collect a number of different topics.

First of all, it was good to hear how much everybody agreed that circulation, mobility and cooperation is at the core of career development and career paths in academia.

That being said there seems to be two main structural problems: The rewards structures and the excellence agenda. The first one is the problem of what defines successful researchers and grants in a career. We are back at (biblio)metrics, publications and funding. It seemed that everybody agrees there is a problem, but the solutions where nowhere to be found. Finding solutions will be crucial for developing more diverse research groups, so we are looking forward to initiatives in this field. Secondly, the excellence agenda means that the mobility of researchers in Europe is as much a circulation as a one-way street towards north-west. The new codeword for the widening agenda is “inclusiveness”. If you thought that was about diversity in terms of gender, race, sexuality, ability etc., then think again. This means capacity building in member countries that are losing due to the focus on excellence. This is a fair agenda, and something certainly has to be done on a structural level. The Commissioner was very clear that we would see further initiatives during her time.

These two topics will have a significant influence on careers and career paths of researchers. As mentioned in the beginning this is a complex eco system and changing one part will influence the others for better or worse, and the focus is too often on the societal impact (again, especially on regional level) or the administrative red tape of international mobility. Only one speaker talked about the importance of a human resources strategy for researchers, and that should worry us all, because more than anything, diversity and internationalisation is a matter of people.

 

The first updates in these matters will hopefully be found in the new strategy for the European Research Area. This is often a somewhat forgotten strategy, as the money is in Horizon 2020/Horizon Europe. The only certainties are:

  • that the new initiatives on gender in Horizon Europe proposals is only a first step towards requirements in diversity, so we all have to step up.
  • that there will be increasing demand for international collaboration.
  • that this collaboration will be increasingly complex due to the political situation.
  • That researcher mobility will be much more complex going in different directions, and we all have to increase our cultural knowledge to make this work

The European Research & Innovation Days were an interesting experiment in digital policy conferences. As always it is important to read between the lines and hear what is not being said. So, what did you read that wasn’t said? Do you agree with our points? Please contact us and let us know your thoughts. 

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