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Spotlight on the University Workgroups (BUW)

Colleagues talk about winding down this NWO-I unit

Of the 1737 employees at NWO-I, 75 people form a somewhat invisible group: they are part of the Administrative Unit University Research Groups (BUW). The 75 young researchers, spread across nearly all Dutch universities, are all in the process of completing their physics research. Within a few years from now, the last PhD candidate or postdoc will close the door behind them at BUW. However, before the door closes for the last time, this issue of Inside NWO-I devotes attention to this unusual form of employership within NWO-I.

Funder as well as employer

Before 2017, the Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter (FOM) was the institution in the Netherlands that awarded nearly all competitive funding for physics research. NWO only financed a small part, such as the awarding of funds through the Talent Scheme (Veni, Vidi, Vici) and for developing infrastructure. What made the FOM so special was that it was both a research funding body and an employer of researchers. FOM employed PhDs, postdocs and sometimes also technicians at universities who worked with funding from FOM. Administratively, they were brought together in the BUW, an umbrella term without any further legal status. Other PhD candidates did research at a FOM Institute (AMOLF, ARCNL, DIFFER and Nikhef) and were also FOM employees, but did not fall within the BUW. In 2017, FOM was absorbed into NWO. A part of the funding aspect became part of NWO Domain Science and the other part became part of NWO-I. The support team at FOM became the NWO-I office, and the BUW became the responsibility of NWO-I.

A look back and the PhD theses

FOM was established in 1946 and when it became part of NWO, several thousand PhD defences had already been concluded. In its 70 years of existence, FOM made a lot of fantastic physics research possible. Initially, most results were gained in the field of fundamental research and, later, more application-oriented knowledge too. From 2004 onwards, FOM, for example, collaborated with industry in the successful Industrial Partnership Programme. That built a bridge between fundamental research and possible applications at companies that became involved in the research. This led to various patents. Within a programme like the Shell-NWO/FOM programme “Computational Sciences for Energy Research” that started in 2012, funding was awarded to 22 research proposals, which resulted in 70 PhD theses. To give you an idea about a typical FOM year: in 2015, FOM had a budget of 108 million euros, 1100 employees and 105 PhD theses were written, including those of BUW PhD candidates. To showcase all of the outstanding physics research, each thesis was displayed in a carousel in the entrance hall of the FOM building in Utrecht. The BUW PhD candidates were also invited to FOM festivities, participated in the annual sports day and were given a day off on the so-called directors’ days, the two complimentary days off per year that were allocated in addition to the standard vacation days.

At the start of 2017, just about 220 BUW employees remained. New employees did arrive to fill open vacancies, but the number of BUW employees continued to decrease because hardly any new positions have been funded within the unit during the past few years. It is an exit model. Between 2017 and 2022, about 150 BUW employees defended their PhD theses. The other employees who left were PhD candidates who did not complete their PhD or postdoc research. Today, there are 75 BUW employees left.

Peter Spijker, policy adviser Strategic Support at the NWO-I office

Determining the strategy for physics together
Peter Spijker is policy adviser Strategic Support at the NWO-I office. His responsibilities include the BUW. ‘In the FOM period, there were four institutes and one BUW. The various employees in the BUW, spread across the Dutch universities, had nothing to do with each other in practice. PhD candidates from different plumage at universities often worked together in a single department. In such instances, some were directly employed by the university, and others by FOM in the BUW. For the vast majority of people, it probably did not matter who paid their salary at the end of the month. And for their everyday work this construction had no consequences either. Very occasionally, tension existed in the area of supplementary employment conditions, for example when PhD candidates employed by a university received a sports pass and “our” PhDs did not. However, solutions were found for such issues. In each grant award letter, it was stated that FOM workgroup leaders, who received money from FOM for their scientific proposal/project, were responsible for the everyday well-being of their PhD or postdoc in their role as supervisor. FOM held them accountable in this area and, in doing so, could demonstrate good employership. Workgroup leaders were often not employed by FOM themselves, but they did, together with the institutes, determine the direction of Dutch physics research to a large extent. As a workgroup leader, you had a certain status. This was how the physics field was organised back then, and at a strategic level this worked well. There was a strong feeling that the physics strategy should be shaped by the field, and this was the course that was followed.’

‘On paper, the BUW was meant to deliver its last PhD in 2023, but we will not be able to achieve this. The BUW will continue to exist for a little while longer for various reasons such as the COVID-19 pandemic but also due to several outstanding obligations. In everyday practice, this currently concerns matters such as short extensions for PhD candidates and postdocs who have incurred delays and how we can best use the limited funding available for this’, says Peter.

Femke Bangma, BUW PhD candidate at HFML-FELIX in Nijmegen

Small differences, such as vacation days
Femke Bangma is a fourth year PhD candidate at HFML-FELIX at Radboud University in Nijmegen. She is finalising her PhD research in the group Strongly correlated electron systems. ‘I study metals at very low temperatures in high magnetic fields. The most important part of my research takes place outside of HFML-FELIX in collaboration with a group from London. I carried out most of the measurements there and, due to COVID-19, I mainly did that remotely for the past two years. The set-up in London is really awesome. They have a special refrigerator that can operate at extremely low temperatures with high magnets. That combination is rare.’

‘I have just received a four-month extension to my contract from NWO-I. The processing of the request went very smoothly. I hope to have completed my thesis by 1 January 2023. As I am a member of the faculty works council, I can obtain a further two-month extension, a sort of extra injury time, but I don’t think I will need this. My appointment is at NWO-I, in the BUW. The difference with my colleagues who have a contract with Radboud University often lies in little things, for instance in courses offered and in vacation days. On the last afternoon of the International Four Day Marches Nijmegen, Radboud University has made it mandatory to take time off, and the same applies to the period between Christmas and New Year. These are the local rules, and I register that in the NWO-I system. I know that the BUW may provide two members for the Central Works Council of NWO (COR NWO), but I am not really inclined to volunteer for that myself. The COR NWO seems too distant. And I prefer to solve things locally, in any case. Together with a colleague, I’m calling for a more efficient use of electricity at HFML-FELIX, by reusing the heat generated by the magnets to heat buildings on campus. Wouldn’t it be great if during the winter, we could give back all of that green electricity we consume as heat?’

Annette Bor, P&O employee at the NWO-I office, is responsible for the BUW administration

A postcard from a business trip
At the NWO-I office, Annette Bor takes care of all of the BUW administration: employment conditions, visa applications, travel reimbursements, moving costs, contracts and, since 2018, the salary administration as well. ‘I started at FOM in 1993. When the BUW was bigger, the work for the universities was divided between two colleagues. Now, I handle all BUW administration on my own. In May, a new researcher will start in Delft, until January 2023. As a result of COVID-19, I have processed few advances for and declarations of business trips in recent years. We did, however, receive many requests for extensions. We then ask for a statement detailing how many chapters of the PhD thesis are completed and what still needs to be done. PhD candidates can separately list for how many months they have incurred delay due to COVID-19, because that is paid for from a separate fund specifically established for that purpose. Sometimes a PhD candidate suffers another type of setback, for example, because a piece of equipment in a laboratory was defective and he or she was not able to conduct experiments. A contract may be extended up until the moment that the PhD thesis goes to the assessment committee. Once a thesis has been published, I receive two copies of it and I reimburse the printing costs. In the past, my colleague Maria (Teeuwisse, ed.) and I were sometimes acknowledged in a thesis. Or PhD candidates on a business trip sent us a postcard. We always had a nice working relation with them because we could truly mean something for these PhD candidates. In particular, PhD candidates from abroad often need help in finding their feet in the Netherlands. Sometimes I had to arrange a visa for an entire family. At the annual Physics@Veldhoven conference, we would come across each other again, and then they said: “Ah, are you THE Annette Bor?”. At the conference, I discussed cases with the workgroup leaders as well.’

Detlef Lohse, workgroup leader BUW and Professor Fluid Dynamics at the University of Twente

Tailored courses
Detlef Lohse, Professor of Fluid Dynamics at the University of Twente, still has four BUW PhD candidates working in his research programme Fundamental Fluid Dynamics Challenges in Inkjet Printing (FIP1). As a workgroup leader, what does he consider to be the most obvious difference between BUW PhD candidates and those PhD candidates who are employed by a university? ‘In the daily supervision of PhD candidates, as their supervisor, I am not concerned about who pays their salary. If there are small issues, I simply need to phone the NWO-I office for PhD candidate X, and the university for PhD candidate Y. That is straightforward enough. The clearest difference lies in the training courses that the BUW PhD candidates can follow. NWO-I offers them well-developed and tailored courses such as Taking charge of your PhD project, The art of scientific writing, or a training for ways in which to present science. Towards the end of a PhD programme, BUW PhD candidates can make company visits organised by the NWO-I office during which they can explore their career possibilities. There was, and still is, considerable enthusiasm about these facilities and training courses that PhD candidates from NWO Institutes continue to take part in and benefit from. And that is a major advantage for them. My programme FIP1 has acquired follow-up in the form of FIP2, but now according to the rules of NWO, which means that PhD candidates are employed by the University of Twente. I do not want to claim that everything used to be better in the old days, but FOM did provide a sense of community and everybody spoke the same physics language. As NWO is much larger, and a more broadly constituted panel uses other standards for awarding, it is now harder to make it clear to what benefits a certain hardcore physics research project can yield. The competition for funding is immense. I do not think that everything should have to be done in a multidisciplinary manner. Dutch society greatly benefits from the fact that our PhD graduates in the natural sciences end up in companies like ASML, Philips, Canon and Shell.’

Text: Anita van Stel
Newsletter Inside NWO-I, May 2022
You can find the archive of the newsletter Inside NWO-I on the NWO-I website.

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