They came, they saw, they discovered: NWO-Vidi honours for Annelies Renders, Caroline Goukens and Olivier Marie

Being recognised for academic excellence by the nation’s most important research funder is an honour; when it comes with 800,00 euros to support five years of research, the impact can be life-changing. In winning an NWO-Vidi award, Annelies Renders (AIM), Caroline Goukens (MSCM) and Olivier Marie (ROA) have joined an exclusive group of mid-career scholars selected by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) for their achievements to date and potential for the future. They are among six academics at Maastricht University, and just 86 in all of the Netherlands, to claim the award this year, and their work could have significant benefits for society in the areas of crime prevention, financial regulation, and healthier and smarter living. MySBE hears from all three academics about winning “the big one”.

Annelies Renders, assistant professor in financial accounting (pictured above, left) has been a member of the Department of Accounting and Information Management since 2010. Her Vidi-funded research project, The Economic Effects of Accounting, will use quasi-experimental settings to investigate the efficiency of accounting regulation, look for evidence of overregulation, and consider the impact of non-regulated information.

How did you find out you had won a Vidi?

Annelies Renders: “I was working from home, anxiously awaiting the email from the NWO with the decision about my application for a Vidi grant. Of course I was hoping, but not expecting, to win it. But since it would have been the first time that a Vidi grant had been awarded to an accounting researcher, to be honest, I was not really counting on it.”

Will the Vidi’s 800,000 euros permit you to do research that you couldn’t have done otherwise? 

AR: “Definitely; the grant will help me to collect data by hand, which would otherwise be very time-consuming to collect on my own.”

What are your plans for a research group ?

AR: “I am currently reaching out to international researchers to collaborate on this grant. In addition, my research group will consist of two PhD students and a research assistant.”

Only 15% of this year’s applicants received a Vidi grant. Is it easy to remain optimistic when the odds against success are so high?

AR: “I think you need to believe in the strength and relevance of your proposal. In addition, you need to be very enthusiastic about your research. With or without the Vidi grant, I would have been carrying out the research outlined in my proposal – although without the grant it would have been much more difficult.

“I would like to thank my department chair, Ann Vanstraelen, and my colleagues in the Accounting and Information Management department for their ongoing support. In addition, there are many people in the school who have helped me through this whole process, by providing comments and feedback on my proposal, rebuttal and presentation, by supporting me and believing in my chances, which I appreciate enormously.”

As an independent academic observer, you look carefully at how accountants and regulators work – and where they fail. Are they willing to hear about their shortcomings? 

AR: “In my experience, accounting regulators are very open to input from the academic world. They often even solicit research to investigate the effects of new accounting regulations. In addition, accounting regulation is not static but dynamic and evolves over time, as business models change over time. So accounting regulators are constantly evaluating their own accounting standards and adjusting them. I think this is what makes accounting research so interesting. I believe my research findings can help regulators to further improve accounting standards, and I will do my best to inform accounting regulators about my findings.”

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Caroline Goukens, professor in the Department of Marketing and Supply Chain Management (pictured above, centre) focuses on individual decision-making, consumption behaviour and the effect of contextual cues on consumer behaviour. The research for which she won the Vidi, entitled Move to Improve, looks at everything from stress balls and ball chairs to healthy eating in an investigation of the influence of implicit movement on our cognitive performance and self-control.

Where were you when you found out that you had won the Vidi… and were you surprised?

Caroline Goukens: “‘Surprised’ is definitely an understatement. Considering the low acceptance rates for the Vidi, my hopes were not too high. I was working from home that day, but I quickly texted my colleagues to share the good news. The next day, my office was completely covered in garlands and balloons!”

What will the 800,000 euros allow you to do?

CG: “Even without getting the grant, I would have proceeded with this research line. But the grant will offer me the time and the means to take a broader approach. It will allow me to include a more diverse set of research methodologies (including brain data), and to complement the proposed lab studies with a nice set of field studies.” 

Do you know who will be in your research group?

CG: “Not yet, but I have a clear idea of the specific profile I am looking for, and I will start recruiting soon.”

What’s the secret to staying optimistic when applying for a highly prized award such as the Vidi?

CG: “To some extent, we academics are used to this: the acceptance rate at the better academic journals is rarely higher than 15%. Still, a great amount of work goes into the preparation of a proposal — often on top of your regular tasks — which might feel like a complete waste of time if your proposal is not granted. Hopefully the new NWO procedures will bring about an improvement in the process. On the other hand, preparing a grant proposal, even in cases where it is rejected, forces you to take a critical look at your research and CV, which in the end is always useful.

“And on the subject of the secret of success, I think we all agree that winning an award is a combination of a well-written proposal and some good luck. Concerning the former, I made great use of all the generous advice I got from SBE colleagues who gave input on the proposed research, or who shared their experiences of writing grants or participating in panels. And on some occasions, five minutes at the coffee machine was time better spent than half a day at my desk.”

You are studying the potential effect of movement on cognitive performance, eating habits and self-control. Have you changed anything in your own life, such as your office environment or approach to exercise, as a result of your research?

CG: “It is too early to draw conclusions. However, we do know that engaging in exercise and bodily movement plays a large role in improving cognitive functions. Many of the better ideas we have don’t come when sitting in front of a computer screen. So, yes, I stopped forcing my children to sit down when preparing their schoolwork, and yes, I stopped feeling guilty about not sitting still behind a computer for days on end!”

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Olivier Marie, who is professor of labour economics at both ROA and the Erasmus School of Economics in Rotterdam (pictured above, right) won his Vidi for a research project entitled Determinants of a Life in and Out of Crime, which focuses on crime prevention across three life phases — at birth, in adolescence, and in adulthood when facing incarceration. The objective of the study is to determine where interventions aimed at reducing offending can do the most good.

How did you find out you had won?

Olivier Marie: “I was at home with my wife (the person who has most helped me through all this process), as I had heard from colleagues that the results were being sent out. I had been waiting for some kind of answer for quite a few days. When the email finally came in, all it said was that the response was… ‘In attached letter’! I had to open it and read through quite a few lines before getting to the part where it said ‘We have the pleasure…’. I was extremely happy and surprised, of course.”

Will the cash allow you to do something that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible?

OM: “Absolutely. The money will help me do research that would be hard to fund independently, and especially to do really in-depth research that can often take quite a lot of time to complete. Governments do sometimes directly fund research into the important societal issue I work on, crime, but this often comes with strings attached, is limited in scope, and has very short deadlines. It’s hard to produce top-quality research in such a setting!”

Will you set up a research team?

OM: “The plan is indeed to start a small research group, and I have budgeted for two PhDs and a postdoc to work on my project. At this stage I don’t yet have the names of individual collaborators.”

How do you stay hopeful when you are one of countless people applying for a large award?

OM: “You always have to keep believing it is possible, despite the low odds of winning, since one thing is sure… you have no chance at all if you give it no positive effort! Of course many times you can find yourself rejected after working extremely hard on it; the luck of the draw is always part of the funding story. In that case, the best approach is to see it as a good practice exercise for future grants, and also, and perhaps more importantly, as a time when you were able to take stock of your career and properly write down your plans for the future.”

What will your research entail, and do you expect policy-makers to make use of what you find?

OM: “Here is a quick summary of the who/how/where of the three life phases when there is scope for crime prevention. Note that all make use of what I call ‘Big Dutch Data’ (i.e., administrative data on the whole Dutch population):

i –  We will look at crime incidence among cohorts born before and after introduction of the birth control pill in the Netherlands in 1970, to study the impact of parental selection.

ii – We will study the factors that can explain ‘escalation’ among teenagers (i.e., why some start committing a large number of crimes) and carry out a field experiment to see if Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can be a good tool to prevent it.

iii – We will consider the impact of a change in Dutch prison policy in 2004, which moved from single to multiple use cells, which gives us an excellent opportunity to study the impact of prison conditions and peers on post-release crime.

All three of these projects, of course, have very strong potential policy implications!”

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