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‘Embrace the change brought by the pandemic’

KNAW says Dutch research can become more efficient but universities must review tech company links

Dutch universities and their researchers must seize the opportunities offered by pandemic-inspired increases in digitisation—but they must also take a hard look at their links to tech companies, the KNAW academy of sciences has said.

The pandemic also showed that certain processes in academic research could be made more efficient, the KNAW concludes in a report this month on how the pandemic impacted academia.

Big tech

To protect its academic freedom, the academic community needs to reflect on the responsible use of digital technology and its growing dependence on ‘big tech’ firms, the evaluators warn. Universities need to critically revise their procurement, consider investing in alternative tools and infrastructures and strengthen their negotiating positions.

The KNAW suggests creating a funding programme dedicated to stimulating digital innovation in research and creating and maintaining digital infrastructures and open-access publications.

More, faster

Many countries around the world adopted rapid systems for the distribution of R&D funding during the pandemic, while publications at the other end of the research process were accelerated by rapid peer review and increased use of preprints.

Academic institutions and funding agencies should embrace this flexibility and speed and evaluate the lessons learned, the KNAW says.

“The pandemic acted as a magnifying glass, allowing us to better see existing cracks in the research community,” says the report team, led by Natali Helberger, a professor of law and digital technology at the University of Amsterdam. “Let us now take the opportunity to repair these cracks.”

No going back

Researchers do not want to return to how things were before the pandemic, Helberger’s team notes.

Digital technologies have opened up opportunities that they will not want to forego even if the rest of the world would like to go back to ‘normal’. Academic practices should move towards more hybrid modes of working, allowing for a smaller ecological footprint and opening up new perspectives on internationalisation, collaboration and conferencing, says the KNAW team. 

To allow for that, the UNL association of Dutch universities should collect best practices and identify needs in terms of tools, skills and organisational support, the KNAW advises. Institutions should develop their own strategic visions on the responsible use of digital technology, including how to protect the privacy and safety of staff and students.

Team spirit

As well as speeding up digitisation, the pandemic underscored the importance of teams and team spirit in academia.

To better allow for the recognition and reward of team efforts and peer support, university leaders should change the way that academic staff are evaluated and supported, the KNAW team says.

“I hope this report inspires academic institutions, policymakers and funding agencies to take a forward-looking approach, and I expect that it will help to map out the road to an ‘improved normal’, where solutions will be found for existing divides in academia that the pandemic has brought to the fore,” said Marileen Dogterom, the KNAW’s president.

“I specifically call for actions that will improve the position of early career researchers so as to make our academic system future-proof.”