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Under the banner of #NormaalAcademischPeil ('normal academic standard'), Dutch universities have started a coalition to demand a structural increase of €1.1 billion in government funding. This action is broadly supported by the academic community, and I'm also sympathetic to it myself. However, I feel that the action is too narrowly aimed at defending the interests of universities, without properly considering the role of universities in society at large.

The problems at Dutch universities are very real and multifaceted; they touch upon things such as the pervasiveness of temporary contracts, hypercompetion for grant funding, and the high salaries of full professors.

However, the coalition has chosen to focus on the figure below as illustrating The Problem. And it's this figure that I will also focus on in this post, because I believe that it reflects a complex reality that is very different from the simplified picture painted by the coalition.

'The Problem' is that the number of students who attend a Dutch university has almost doubled over the past twenty years (the grey bars; from about 175,000 to 300,000). In that same period, government funding per student has decreased by 25% (the red line; from about €20k per student to about €15k). In other words, universities have more budget in total, but less budget per student.

Based on this, the coalition correctly points out that the quality of university education has suffered. In practice, this means that many lectures have become mass productions. (I have lectured for a …

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A small tribute to Oliver Sacks

The Island of the Color Blind was the first of Oliver Sacks' books that I read, after I chanced upon it in the book store of the VU University Amsterdam where I was studying at the time. The book left a big impression on me. It was like a detective story, except that the crime was a neurological condition and the detective was a neurologist. So cool! Starting from there, over the years I began to read his other work as well, until by now I've read most of it. Most recently, I read Everything in its Place, a posthumously published collection of essays.

In his most famous essay, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Sacks describes a man who suffers from visual agnosia, which is an inability to recognize objects and people (such as hats and wives). It's a case study of sorts, as are most of his other essays. But to call them 'case studies' is to sell them short, because really they are personal stories, often with two main characters: the patient and Sacks himself. And although their relationship is always that between a patient and a doctor, both are described as people with their own views, worries, and interests.

Sacks introduced me to the bizarre world of neuropsychological disorders: hemispatial neglect, which is an extreme lack of curiosity for things that are, usually, on the left, and which inspired my own short story Negligence (see link below); prosopagnosia, which is a form of …

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Is pupil mimicry real? And if so, what is it?

If you see someone yawn, you won't be able to suppress a yawn of your own. If you see someone take a sip from her coffee, you are likely to take a sip as well. If you see someone shift her gaze, your gaze is likely to follow. These are all examples of automatic imitation, or mimicry.

An adorable Rhesus monkey imitating tongue protrusion. (Source, License: CC-by 2.5)

Mimicry may serve a social function. If you see someone take a sip from her coffee, some of the same brain regions ("mirror neurons") become active that would also become active when you take a sip yourself. This neural overlap is, in a sense, a direct form of neural empathy: When I see you do something, it's like I'm doing it myself. And this overlap increases the likelihood of automatic imitation, because seeing someone else perform an action primes your brain to perform the same action yourself.

All of this may sound fanciful, and not all researchers buy into the mimicry-as-empathy notion to the same extent. But by and large this is accepted psychological theory. And personally I think that there's a lot to it.

Pupil mimicry is a specific type of automatic imitation, in which you automatically adjust the size of your eye's pupils based on the pupils of someone you're looking at. So if I would look at you, and if your pupils would dilate, then my own pupils would dilate as well. In the past years, several high-profile …

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My (unremarkable) experience with signing peer reviews

When a manuscript is submitted to an academic journal, it generally undergoes peer review. That is, the manuscript is read by other researchers who rate the quality of the manuscript, suggest improvements, etc. Based on these peer reviews, the editor of the journal then either rejects the paper, or accepts it for publication, usually after one or two rounds of revision.

A thorny question in this process is whether reviewers should remain anonymous, or whether they should disclose their identity by signing their reviews. There's a wide-spread belief that signing reviews is dangerous, because authors may not appreciate your critical comments, and may even retaliate, for example by trashing your manuscript when it's their turn to review. This would be especially dangerous for early-career researchers, who don't have permanent positions, and are therefore vulnerable to career damage.

A few days ago, Hilda Bastian voiced this concern in a blog post. I feel that her post is somewhat alarmist, in the sense that it starts from the assumption that signing reviews is indeed dangerous. (Although she also points out that it can in some cases help to build a reputation.)

And this prompted me to share my own experiences here.

Robert De Niro as an easily offended author.

I have signed all of my reviews, starting from the very first one, which I believe was in 2011 when I was still a junior PhD student. Since then I've reviewed about 100 manuscripts and grant proposals, most of them undergoing multiple rounds …

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Why do the US and the UK dominate the World University Rankings?

Every year, all universities in the world are ranked by academic excellence. (I'm only going to use the term 'academic excellence' once, because every time I write it, I vomit a little in my mouth.) These rankings are created by three self-appointed authorities: QS, The Times of Higher Education, and The Shanghai Rankings.

Below you can see where the Top 20 universities come from:

The most striking feature of these rankings is that the Top 20 consists almost entirely of US and UK institutes. In fact, only five countries appear in any of the three Top 20s: US (42×), UK (11×), Switzerland (4×), Singapore (2×), and Australia (1×). And the Top 3 even consists entirely of US (6×) and UK (3×) institutes.

Not all universities are equally good, and I have no problem accepting that Oxford (#6 according to QS) is in all respects a better university than my previous academic home of Aix-Marseille Université (#411-420 according to QS). And universities may, on average and by some measures, be a bit better in one country than another. That's fine.

But the suggestion that, to a good approximation, the US and the UK are the only countries in the world where you can find good universities is ridiculous. What about Japan? What about Germany? What about France—how did Emmanuel Macron become president after receiving an education (well, if you can call it that!) at lowly Paris Nanterre (#801-1000 according to QS)? Compare that to Donald Trump, who was educated at …

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