Immigrant Talent Is Jostling for Research Position


This is a translation of a Dutch

“Top students.” That’s how the Netherlands’ Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) is referring to the 40 students from ethnic minorities now competing for one of the so-called ?Mosaic’ research grants. Certain ethnicities living in the Netherlands are largely underrepresented at every level of the scientific workforce. Mosaic aims to contribute to turn the situation around by giving talented young immigrants support to do a Ph.D.

In December 2002, the NWO published a book entitled ‘Colourful Talent in Science’ portraying immigrant scientists, together with the results of their study on the position of immigrant scientists in Dutch universities. Even though obtaining hard data was rather difficult, the authors of the report were in the position of concluding that the number of immigrants was relatively low at every rank of the scientific career ladder. No more than 1% of all scientists were of one of the four ethnic minorities most commonly represented in the Netherlands–Turkish, Moroccan, Surinam, and Antillean. The situation seems however set to change, with all ethnic minorities together forming about 5% of all academic graduates–a percentage that is increasing steadily.

“On one hand the universities do make real efforts to recruit immigrants as scientists,” Wilma van Donselaar, coordinator of the Mosaic programme of the NWO explains. “On the other hand science is not very appealing among ethnic minorities. Immigrants who finish off an academic education are often an exception in their own environment, which is why they are subsequently expected to make a lot of money–as a lawyer or doctor or something else glamorous. People don’t know that science can also be lots of fun.”

The way students from ethnic minorities may feel among other scientists may also be a factor. “You can always hear them thinking: ?what’s this Moroccan doing here?’ “, Sadik Harchaoui says in the NWO book about his time as a law student. “You don’t feel part of all these networks with their unwritten conventions, unfamiliar to you.” Especially as he continued in science after graduation, he felt he had to be mentally strong and prove himself constantly. “Others often think that either you’ve received special treatment or you’ll soon have to come clean,” explains Harchaoui.


As a result of this study the Mosaic programme was set up by the NWO one and a half years ago. The NWO took this initiative to increase the contribution of ethnic minorities to the scientific workforce, and this not only because universities cannot afford to leave some sources of talent untapped in times of increasing personnel shortage. But also because when the staff is more diverse, it usually results in an improved quality of education and research, with the opening of new scientific horizons and enlargement of scientific networks. Additionally, a workforce with a better representation of ethnic minorities will help attract more students from these groups in particular.

Through Mosaic the NWO is targeting graduates from ethnic minorities who are interested in doctoral research. Mosaic holds out a ?180,000 prospect to help lower any barrier that may prevent students from going on the academic track. This sum is sufficient to pay 4 years of stipend plus other expenses such as training and conferences. “[Students] can virtually walk up to any professor, saying: ?NWO pays for everything,’ ” says Van Donselaar. The money put forward by the NWO was initially just enough to cover 10 doctoral positions though–a number that was perhaps symbolic but in any case hoped to create a small stir.

And it seems this is exactly what happened. The first call for Mosaic attracted nearly 200 applications–far more than the NWO had expected. This was sufficient a reason for Maria van der Hoeven, the minister of education, to earmark some extra money for the programme. With the additional budget, not just 10, but a total of 20 immigrant doctoral students can now be funded. And as if this wasn’t enough of a stir, chances are that even more students will be able to receive funding for their work. Already some universities have hinted that they will put aside a budget for good candidates who don’t make it through at the last round.

Top students

Forty candidates have now had the chance to be selected to submit their research proposals last April, based on a preliminary 500-word proposal. More than half of them originate from one of the four most common ethnic minorities, the rest of the students coming from other nonwestern countries such as Iran and China. Women are in majority, and most of the candidates graduated only recently or still have to graduate. “They really are top students,” says Van Donselaar.

She observed each of them as they were taking part in workshops, where they were given help from experienced scientists to develop further their original scientific project. Students then presented their proposal to experts, as well as “to each other, which resulted in very lively discussions,” says Van Donselaar. “Whether all detailed proposals will be equally good, I actually don’t know. Some of the candidates received a lot of help from their workshop supervisor while writing, others less.”

The candidates who will get the coveted Mosaic support will be announced in August. The NWO is keen to keep in touch with these young talents once they’ve received the funding, as well as with the candidates who might be hired by the universities themselves. “We are going to follow the Mosaic researchers a bit more closely than we usually do,” says Van Donselaar. The NWO would also like to encourage the students to stay in touch with each other, for example by organising workshops. “Maybe we’ll do something about mentorship as well, but maybe they won’t need that,” adds Van Donselaar.

Whether there will be another call for Mosaic grants will have to be decided in the future. A slightly different setting has been suggested by Van Donselaar, where universities would contribute to the costs. In any case the current Mosaic programme has put the issue of ethnic minorities at the top of the universities’ agendas. “But I’ve still come across enough prejudices lately,” she says. “Immigrants are still frequently seen as a threat. Yet even though it is often said that truly excellent students will always get there, it doesn’t work that way.”

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