25,000 for delayed research
UG psychologist forces NWO to pay him damages
‘It was an emotional moment’, Stephan Schleim admits, referring to when he read the Council of State’s judgement. It’s been eight years since he started his battle with research financier NWO, and there were times when he doubted there was any due process in the Netherlands.
But now it’s over: he not only received the 250,000 euro VENI grant he applied for in 2012 and which, it later turned out, he had been denied unjustly, but he’s also been awarded damages since his research, which didn’t get started until 2017, will cost more money because of the delay.
It all started in 2011, when the German Schleim, who’d only just started his career at the UG, applied for a VENI grant. He wanted to study the role of individuals in neuroscientific research, which usually tries to make statements about groups of people.
But his application was denied. He feels the grounds for the rejection were wrong. Initially, he didn’t let it bother him, and submitted an improved application in 2012. ‘But that one was denied as well, and it was so clear that they’d made mistakes in the process that I decided to lodge a complaint’, he says.
The first time his application was evaluated, Schleim received the highest possible grade from the NWO referents, an A+. He was in third place out of 59 applicants and was through to the second interview round. Then, he suddenly dropped to nineteenth place, which meant he missed out on the grant.
‘The explanation was three short paragraphs containing incorrect information’, he says. It said that Schleim hadn’t properly explained how his research contributed to society. ‘But that had been a point of focus in my application’, he says. ‘It’s just that we didn’t talk about it in the interview.’
He suspects that his decision to do the interview in Dutch is what led to his rejection, when all he wanted to do was show he was committed to the Netherlands. ‘That was my mistake; my Dutch wasn’t good enough yet.’
On top of that, his interviewers were a geneticist, for whom psychology was not an area of expertise, and a social psychologist. ‘The latter said she didn’t understand my research.’ He thinks the motivation for his rejection was ‘a matter of copy and paste’.
His objection was judged to be legitimate, but then NWO came up with another reason why they’d rejected his application. ‘The second time, they said I was too advanced in my career, and the third time they claimed I wasn’t helping them find a solution.’
In 2014, Schleim went to administrative court. ‘Then they came up with the rule that if your application had been unjustly denied, you had to submit a new one. I refused to accept that, but I know of other researchers who did that, and they all lost.’
In the end, the administrative court said he had a right to the grant. Nevertheless, Schleim appealed. ‘I wanted the judge to issue a substantive response to the grant rejection and how NWO had done things.’
The appeal worked out in his favour, but he still lacked a substantive response. In 2016, he went to court for damages, since the delay to his research meant his budget had now exceeded 250,000 euros. The Council of State awarded him 25,000 euros.
He never regretted his battle with NWO. ‘Looking back, it took so much time and effort. But it was also a great way to learn Dutch’, he says matter-of-factly. ‘I enjoy writing and I’ve tried to keep a positive attitude.’
Nevertheless, he’s shocked at the way the research financier deals with scientists and how it distributes grants. ‘Other researchers have told me the motivation for their rejections were incorrect, too’, he says. ‘They usually don’t kick up a fuss, since they’re afraid of being blacklisted.’
As for Schleim, the NWO hasn’t asked him to evaluate any grant applications since his appeal, something they used to do before 2012. He’s also no longer eligible for a VIDI, the follow-up grant for experienced researchers. ‘You’re not allowed to apply for a VIDI if you’re still working on a subsidised study’, he says. Since his VENI research was delayed by four years, he’s now too far advanced in his career for a VIDI.
In a response, NWO stated that they and Schleim disagree about the causal connection between the grant and the earlier rejection. ‘The court had initially ruled in favour of NWO. We’ve taken note of the Council of State’s ruling and will implement it.’