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Interview with Marco de Vos: ‘Consultation between institute managers ensures responsible decision-making’

NWO-I has several types of functional consultations: for Finance, Personnel, Communication, and consultation with the institute managers and directors. The institute managers meet at least once a month, chaired by Marco de Vos of ASTRON. ‘We ensure that the institutes are decisive but don’t run any unwarranted risks.’

What does consultation between institute managers look like?
‘We meet all over the Netherlands, usually in Utrecht or at the Amsterdam Science Park – we are fairly pragmatic. The agenda includes issues such as risk management or European procurement procedures. For example, procurement thresholds are reached more quickly now that we all fall under a single legal entity. That’s not always very practical so we try to guard against it.’

Consultations have been running for more than a year now. What specifically have you achieved?
‘Above all, we have made a lot of savings. Thanks to us, there are no overworked directors! As institute managers, we are all deputy directors, and as the gateway to the directors’ consultation we prepare and finish things. Above all, however, we ensure that the institutes can be decisive but don’t run any unwarranted risks.’

What do you mean by that?
‘It’s our role to indicate what is needed to keep institutes running, without taking unwarranted risks. For example: sometimes you need a mandate to be able to hire someone quickly, an excellent technician or scientist. After all, you don’t want someone like that to be hired by industry because you needed time to collect six signatures first. On the other hand, you don’t want a director to enter into a contract that will burden you as an institute for twenty years to come. In a nutshell: if you eliminate all risk, you can’t do science, but if you let the scientists go their own way, you end up taking unwarranted financial risks.’

What could be done better?
‘In the first year we spent a lot of time putting out fires and on general organisational discussions. We squabbled a lot about allocating responsibilities and mandates. Now we need to devote more time to risk management and reports. For example: how do we handle talent policy? That’s not just a matter for P&O or Finance, I see it as our role to coordinate and prepare for it.’

What links and what divides the NWO institutes?
‘We all want to work on big questions in science. But besides that, the institutes have various roles. ASTRON, NIOZ and in fact NSCR as well, manage national infrastructure. Others are mainly national representatives in international consortia: Nikhef in CERN, SRON in ESA and ASTRON in SKA. CWI, AMOLF, NSCR and DIFFER play an important role as breeding grounds in developing new scientific areas (and thus in transferring existing lines of research to universities). So it does not matter what role you have, if you’re going to define what you need as an institute or what constitutes relevant management information.’

What tip do you have for employees of NWO-I?
‘Above all, continue doing your job well. Keep calm and carry on, because your institute’s mission hasn’t changed. Take advantage of the fact that you have easier access to colleagues!’

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