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Facing new challenges with enthusiasm

Date:01 September 2021
Vice-dean research and new SOM director professor Robert Lensink
Vice-dean research and new SOM director professor Robert Lensink

Since January 2021, Robert Lensink is the new vice-dean research and the director of the research institute SOM. He started his career at FEB in 1989 as an assistant professor and since 2001,  he is a full Professor of Finance and Financial Markets at the Department of Economics, Econometrics and Finance. Since 2008, he  has also been a part-time Professor of Finance and Financial Markets in the Development Economics Group at Wageningen University, and since 2019 a “Professor Extraordinary” at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.

“I am very pleased that I have been appointed as the new SOM director and the first vice dean for research as this enables me to contribute to a faculty research framework that fosters and promotes excellent and innovative scientific research. The coming period is especially interesting because of several new international and national developments with important implications for our research policies, such as the requests to improve the way in which research assessments are conducted, the call for more inclusion and diversity and the related call for more diverse career tracks, the importance of open science and the increasing importance of multi- and interdisciplinary research. There are several topics that I will pay attention to and would like to share with you. I will also give some examples from my own experience. 

Multidisciplinary Research

For some time now, the importance of multidisciplinary research has been increasing. The reasons are obvious. We live in a time of great changes, and immense challenges, such as climate change, the threat of terrorism, and the sustainability goals. The government of the Netherlands, for instance, has committed itself to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which concerns 17 goals that should “make the world a better place by 2030”. Economists can play a crucial role in terms of achieving these goals. However, it is obvious that most of these challenges are so-called wicked problems, for which there is no single solution, and which hence deserve attention from various disciplines. In my view, research needs to be relevant for society, and as most problems are multidisciplinary by nature, multidisciplinary research projects are obviously important.

Regarding my own research focus, I am a (general) economist by training, and have conducted, and still conduct theoretical and empirical studies within the “core” economics fields, especially in Finance, International Economics and Macroeconomics. Currently, my research predominantly takes an experimental approach, using e.g. randomized controlled trails, to examine impacts of various interventions in developing countries. Very often this research is multidisciplinary in nature, and conducted within multidisciplinary teams. Thus I am part of a H2020 funded project on non-communicable diseases in Indonesia, Myanmar and Vietnam. In this project, I work together with economists, but also with people with a medical background (e.g. UMCG), sociologists and anthropologists.  Very recently, I obtained a large grant from NWO (via the “nationale wetenschapsagenda”) to conduct research on interdependencies between SDG 2: end hunger and SDG 5: gender equality. This project will also be truly multidisciplinary, involving economists, psychologists and people with a medical background. The project will focus on Asian and African countries.

In my opinion, national and international networks are crucial for research. I have a special interest in research for and in African countries, and I actively participate as a so-called resource person for the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC). Not many people know that sub-Saharan Africa is home to several of the world’s fastest-growing economies, which makes it increasingly interesting to also set-up and further develop research cooperation with African universities and research institutes.   

Themes

In its strategic plan 2021-2026 FEB aims to position itself more on five interdisciplinary themes:

1) Healthy Society

2) Energy Transition and Climate Change

3) Digital and Artificial Intelligence

4) Future Prosperity and Sustainability

5) Leadership and Governance

I strongly support the development of the themes. However, these themes will not develop automatically, so an attractive incentive scheme needs to be developed. It also raises several challenges. How do the horizontal themes correspond to the more vertical research programmes? Obviously, nobody wants to force researchers who are excellent in one area to give up their comparative advantage and to conduct multidisciplinary research. But somehow we may need to stimulate researchers from different research programmes to work together.  Are there any implications for our research master’s programme? Do we need to develop multidisciplinary specialisations? Or do we want PhD students to primarily specialise in a monodisciplinary way, and leave multidisciplinary research mainly for the already tenured staff? And, last, but not least, what are the implications for the type of journals we want FEB staff to publish in? Most high-impact journals are still monodisciplinary. Do we want our staff to publish only in journals within the Economics and Business field, or do we also allow our staff to publish in a wider group of journals, including the truly multidisciplinary journals?

Measuring research performance

A second topic that I aim to focus on is related to the latter issue: how do we want to value our research? Nationally and internationally there is a request to improve the way in which individual research assessments are conducted. Traditionally, the quality of research output is primarily determined by focusing on peer reviewed articles, and by using journal Impact factors and related metrics.  This also holds for our current research assessment system, which relies heavily on peer reviewed articles published in top economic outlets, using the article influence score (AIP).

There is an increasing demand to consider a broader range of research output, to also value societal impact (influence on policy and practice) of research, and to include more qualitative indicators of research performance. For instance, the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) stresses very much the importance of changing (in their view, improving) the way in which the quality of research output is evaluated. DORA is very explicit in its recommendations regarding research output.

The DORA recommendations are as follows:

1) Do not use journal-based metrics, such as Journal Impact Factors, as a surrogate measure of the quality of individual research articles, to assess an individual scientist’s contributions, or in hiring, promotion, or funding decisions;

2) For the purposes of research assessment, consider the value and impact of all research outputs (including datasets and software) in addition to research publications, and consider a broad range of impact measures including qualitative indicators of research impact, such as influence on policy and practice. KNAW, VSNU and NWO support the DORA agreement, which e.g. implies that grant decisions will be affected very much by DORA ideas.

KNAW, VSNU and NWO support the DORA agreement, which e.g. implies that grant decisions will be affected very much by DORA ideas. I am a member of the steering committee of NWO-WOTRO, and have seen how ideas about valuing research are changing quite a bit. Thus, whether we like it or not, we will have to very seriously evaluate our current research valuation system, and examine whether and if so how we can adapt it in line with new developments. Therefore, we have recently started up a working group that specifically will focus on the (potential) need for a new system.  One of the most important challenges, in my view, will be how to develop a new system that is better and may be more encompassing than the current system, yet at the same time avoid becoming arbitrary.

Inflow in PhD programme

A final issue that I hope to contribute to is to gradually increase the average yearly inflow of the number of PhD students. At FEB, we have a very good PhD programme, where we focus for obvious reasons very much on the high quality of new PhD hires. The main challenge we will face is how to increase the number of PhD defenses, while at the same time preserving the high quality of our PhD theses? In my view, there are several options we could explore. To name a few. Maybe we could try to “hire” more sandwich PhD candidates, PhDs who stay part of the time in Groningen, but also at their home institution. Another possibility we aim to explore is to increase the number of double degree PhD programmes, especially with regional and international strategic partners. We already have a few double degree programmes, but this could be increased. It is not always necessary to have agreements at the strategic level, also for more individual projects this is an option.

 I was recently appointed by the Board of the University as “Academic Ambassador” for Stellenbosch, to support the University of Groningen’ “Strategic Partnership Framework” (SPF). As part of this position, and my current involvements with the University of Stellenbosch, I see ample possibilities to develop a joint programme that could be mutually beneficial. Of course, increasing the number of PhD defenses requires support by supervising staff. However, I do not see problems there, as, in my opinion,  the supervision of PhD students is one of the most rewarding duties we have.

Obviously, all these aims can only be realised together with colleagues from FEB, and especially my close colleagues from SOM. I am very much looking forward to a very fruitful and pleasant cooperation in the next few coming years.”