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New Folia columnist: “The UvA is a learning organization par excellence”

Dirk Wolthekker,
28 april 2022 - 14:57

Professor of psychological methods Han van der Maas is one of Folia's new columnists. Every two weeks he will discuss worldly suffering and small university distress. To introduce the new columnist, we asked Han van der Maas five questions.

Han, who are you and what do you do?
“I am part of the UvA's entourage. I started studying psychology at the UvA in 1984 and never left. Meanwhile, I have been a professor of psychological methods theory for many years and head of my research group of currently almost fifty people. I have been active in many roles, from OR member to research and education director, from founder of a works council association (the Amsterdam Academy) to founder of a successful spin-off (Exercise Web) and from lecturer to creator of new master programs (the most recent being our behavioural data science course). Now I spend a good part of my time active at the Institute of Advanced Study of the UvA, for example in the organisation of very inspiring interdisciplinary workshops. In the next five years, I will be particularly involved in the implementation of a European research grant, the ERC advanced grant, which was awarded to me in early 2022.”

“I was annoyed by the simplistic of the Maagdenhuis occupiers who offered no credible alternatives”

What exactly does your field of psychological methods theory involve? 
“My field is about the development of methods and techniques for psychological research. In response to the replication crisis in psychology (including the Diederik Stapel affair, ed[BA1] .) and many other sciences, we have proposed all kinds of new methods. One example is the development of an open source (free) variant of the statistical computer program SPSS (JASP) with much greater focus on Bayesian statistics, a modern branch of statistics based on Bayesian probability, one of the interpretations of probability.”

“We also devote a lot of attention to theory development, especially in the form of mathematical and computational models. Very well known is our work on network models for psychological systems. Data science, machine learning and AI also play a big role in our research. My ERC research is about sudden transitions in psychological processes such as radicalisation, insight, and addiction as they are manifested in social transitions, for example, polarisation.”
During the 2015 Maagdenhuis occupation, you were not known as someone who envisioned radical organisational changes. How do you see that now? Is the UvA on the right course?
“The UvA is a very complex organisation where a lot goes right and also a lot goes wrong. At the time, I was annoyed by the simplistic attitude of the occupiers of the Maagdenhuis who did not offer any credible alternatives. This is necessary because many current solutions are the least of all evils. A current example is counting publications and keeping track of h-indexes, which measure the impact of the publications of a scientific researcher. This creates all sorts of perverse incentives and these quantitative measures are not infrequently biased. But the alternative (unstructured qualitative assessments) would be an even greater evil. They are bad for less privileged groups and encourage favoritism. There's no alternative but to develop better quantitative measures and use them in conjunction with other criteria for education and governance that should be as objective as possible.”

“I think the balance in the scholarship system could be shifted back a bit more towards smaller scholarships”

“Relatively speaking, the UvA is an excellent university. Its teaching is of a very high standard internationally, its research is top-notch (especially given its moderate funding), and it is well organised. One reason for this is that the UvA is constantly changing at all levels, and we are all doing it together. There is always some struggle with that because there are so many interests involved. Sometimes I am also very dissatisfied with change or the lack of it. But in general, the UvA is a learning organisation par excellence. We have to be careful with major system changes because they cost a lot of time and money and often have unforeseen drawbacks. Our current operating model certainly has its drawbacks, but they can be reasonably worked around.”
You've just received a major ERC award. How do you view the rigmarole surrounding grants? Shouldn't these awards be “cut up” so that more researchers can benefit? 
“In my research group there is a lot of intensive collaboration. So I will 'share' the money with many others who will act as supervisors in subprojects. I would not speak of scholarship rigmarole. The scholarship system that has existed for about 40 years has brought much innovation to university research and has given many young researchers opportunities. I think the balance could be shifted back to smaller fellowships. I am also a great advocate of drawing lots. Applications are then divided into excellent, good and unsuitable. First, we draw lots in the excellent group and if there are any left, also in the good group. This does more justice to our inability to judge people and research applications precisely. We already do this to great satisfaction in the psychology master's.”
What large and small UvA problems will you address in your column?
“From world problems to small university problems. I don't have a list of topics ready.”