Direction street sign with "Excellence" on it

Towards research excellence rather than excellence itself

Last April, leading researchers, politicians and key players in European research funding discussed how Europe can finance and provide optimal conditions for excellent research. They adopted the so-called “Aarhus Declaration” which states that “when aiming for excellence, one should aim at the stars: a new knowledge which changes paradigms, invents new fields and opens opportunities for broad societal consequences.”

The European Research Council grants focus solely on “excellence,” which means that if all the best scientists in Europe lived in Malta, then all the grants should go to scientists living there, noted Claus Madsen in his 2010 book Scientific Europe – Policies and Politics of the European Research Area. Madsen, senior adviser at the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), says asking to explain excellence is a bit like asking a biologist what extra-terrestrial life would look like. The answer: we don’t know it, but we will when we see it. “The same applies to excellence and I would not like to see a definition that is strongly constrained by bureaucratic requirements,” says Claus. Just as well, since the ERC does not have an official definition of excellence, even if it is its only criterion for attributing grants.

Somehow, the lack of transparency has somewhat blemished the notion of excellence in the view of some commentators, who see it as being akin to crystal ball gazing. For example, 98% of ERC funding has gone to Western European countries. How the process functions is nonetheless difficult to ascertain. “It is very difficult to get behind the scenes to see how these things are done,” notes Matthew Shindell, historian of science at the University of California, San Diego, “The grant review process is built upon the ideal of blind review, and the process is kept guarded and confidential for this purpose.” It is not easy to study excellence as a measure.

What is excellence?

Excellence is a fuzzy term, says Sheila Jasanoff, Professor of science and technology studies at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, who has chaired Austria’s Wittgenstein award for close to ten years. “The part I find most troublesome is the translation of excellence into a set of indicators that we know are being used to measure scholarship. There are many such sets of indicators, but there is a creeping tendency toward suggesting that excellence can be lined up on a particular type of numerical scale,” she says.

The focus on impact factors and citation counts leads to a distortion in the type of work scientists think worth producing. “It leads to an erosion of research in universities that are not ranked high on these excellence indicators,” she explains, “Institutions that look mediocre across the board can have extraordinary centres. Institutions that are good may have centres that are superb,” she says. “I see these problems as being especially acute in, not to name names, but a country like Ireland, where the research culture is necessarily a smaller enterprise. But I see this cookie-cutter view of excellence as leading to a sort of stamping out of things,” Jasanoff explains.

Another issue is the question of when do you measure the value or utility of something? She gives the example of her most successful book written in 1990. “Should its utility have been measured in 1990, 1995, in quarter century retrospect?” She argues that “some gain would be made by looking at trends and temporality should be reintroduced. Not just a snapshot picture of where do you stand now, but what are your plans. This is a somewhat flexible idea that if you are in group X, then you get rewarded for attempting to get into group Y, which is a stage higher. So maybe toward excellence rather than excellence itself, which itself is a static idea.”

What bias for excellence?

Nevertheless, the centring of excellence by the European Research Council, with no requirement for the research to have any application, has its supporters. “The ERC is the best step taken by the EU in science and technology since the EC was founded. The ERC is setting the European gold standard in science. It is the European Champions League of science,” says David McConnell, professor of genetics at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. “It does favour bright, hard-working people and favours institutions, which have attracted such people. So there are complaints from second division scientists, institutions and countries.”

Others see this as a tilting of the playing field, which might produce unintended biases due to fashions or conventions. “We might argue that we are suffering because funding, people and skills to go whatever topics excellent researchers happen to work on rather than being directed to pressing practical and social problems,” says Rebakah Higgitt, Curator of the history of science and technology at the National Maritime Museum in London, UK. “Recent decades stand out from the rest by their interest in funding excellence and undirected basic research and the re-statement of the largely unsupported assumption that these will lead to new technologies and economic benefits.”

Higgitt argues that markers of likely success will be weighted to people with opportunities in terms of background, education and so on. This naturally discriminates against people from less developed parts of the European research landscape and perhaps those at smaller institutions. “Projects and fields covered are also likely to be of interest for reasons unrelated to simply the ability or academic merit of the individuals involved, either because of current interests, policies and fashions or because those elements at play in the past have already influenced the success and direction of application.”

Asked if Erwin Schrödinger, the physicist whose seminal work on the physical aspect of living cells had an impact on modern biology, would have been funded by ERC as a biologist, Higgitt says it is difficult to make such historical comparisons. “The people we have heard of are those who succeeded in their time and context. They might lack the attendant skills required today– grant writing, project leading etc – or they might have succeeded, but only by running their careers on a 21st-century model.”

What now?

Scientists are not passive players in the funding system and a balance in funding is required, however. “It is up to the scientists within a given system, those who understand the positives and the negatives, to be continually vigilant,” warns Jasanoff. When they think things are going too far one way or another, they must accept the responsibility to speak out.

Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 3.0 by Nick Youngson from Alpha Stock Images

Anthony King

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Anthony King is a freelance science writer based in Dublin, Ireland. He has contributed news and feature articles to the Irish Times, and science magazines such as New Scientist, Cosmos Magazine, Discover, Chemistry & Industry and Chemistry World, as well as journals such as Cell, Nature and Science. He writes primarily about the biological and chemical sciences, but also has an interest in policy.
Anthony King

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One thought on “Towards research excellence rather than excellence itself”

  1. No wonder Sheila Janasoff has chaired the Wittgenstein award, as the philosopher who said “the less doubt , the less knowledge”would indeed have smirked at the notion of excellency in science or research.
    Along with the concept of perfection, excellency resounds almost as death, whereas dedication, enthusiasm, rigor, discipline and creativity and above all, curiosity seem to me to be better qualities to bring into the area of research