Research funders urge caution over demanding ‘excellence’

Insistence on ‘excellent’ research is commonplace, but Europe’s biggest funders warn that it can damage integrity and foster ruthless competition when poorly defined

七月 23, 2020
Star-struck the word potentially promotes ‘individualism’ over ‘team science’
Source: Getty
Star-struck the word potentially promotes ‘individualism’ over ‘team science’

Some of the world’s biggest research funders have warned against asking academics to produce “excellent” research, fearing that, when ill-defined, the term pressures researchers to rush out findings and discourages the low-key but vital work of reproducing others’ results.

The recommendations from Science Europe, which represents national funding bodies wielding a collective annual budget of €18 billion (£16.3 billion), appears to be the first official pushback against an approach to judging academics’ work that some critics believe damages research culture

“It is true that we talked sometimes too lightly of ‘excellence’,” said Lidia Borrell-Damian, Science Europe’s secretary general.

The term “research excellence” took off in the 1980s and has shot up in usage ever since. It is now deeply entrenched in policy.

In 2005, Germany launched a national excellence initiative, sprinkling money and prestige over a select few universities. And in the UK, after its final incarnation in 2008, the research assessment exercise, a periodic audit of research quality used to determine university funding allocations, was renamed the research excellence framework (REF).

But demanding “excellence” of academics and grant proposals “as a catch-word without qualification, may lead to a variety of unintended consequences”, according to a statement released by Science Europe.

Funders and universities should be “cautious” about using terms such as excellence “in isolation as a specific criterion within assessment processes”, says its Position Statement and Recommendations on Research Assessment Processes. In a study last year, the association found that none of the research organisations it spoke to that used “excellence” as a criterion provided a “formal, single” definition of the term.

Used without clear definition, the term piles pressure on academics to publish even when a research project needs more time, said Dr Borrell-Damian. “You try to be ‘excellent’ with whatever you have,” she said.

It valorises scientists who make “breakthroughs”, she argued, at the expense of the crucial follow-up work of replicating colleagues’ results – potentially worsening science’s reproducibility crisis.

In addition, the word potentially promotes “individualism” rather than “team science”, the position statement says.

“Everybody wants the [research] group to be excellent, but you have to excel in relation to your colleagues as well,” Dr Borrell-Damian said.

Many of Science Europe’s criticisms echo a 2017 broadside against the “fetishisation of excellence” by a group of academics that argued that the term contributed to “hyper-competition” among scholars and researchers and called instead for a rhetoric that promotes “soundness” and “thoroughness” in science rather than “flashy claims of superiority”.

One of the co-authors, Martin Paul Eve, professor of literature, technology and publishing at Birkbeck, University of London, said it was “gratifying to see these problems recognised by funders” and said he hoped that “this might lead to new innovative and distributive funding paradigms that foster collaboration, rather than competition, between researchers”.

What impact, if any, the advice might have is still unclear. UK Research and Innovation, one of Science Europe’s members, is set to conduct the UK’s next REF in 2021. Using the term “excellence” is not necessarily a problem, argued Dr Borrell-Damian, as long as it is properly defined. “The devil is in the detail,” she added.

Asked to clarify the meaning of “excellence”, a UKRI spokeswoman pointed to REF guidance documents that flesh out what “excellent” means in concrete terms. The highest-rated research is defined as “outstandingly novel” or “a primary or essential point of reference”, for example.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

后记

Print headline: An era of excess ‘excellence’?

Please login or register to read this article.

请先注册再进行下一步

获得一个月的无限制地在线阅读网站内容。只需注册并完成您的职业简介.

注册是免费的,而且非常简单。一旦成功注册,您可以每个月免费阅读3篇文章。:

  • 获得编辑推荐文章
  • 率先获得泰晤士高等教育世界大学排名相关的新闻
  • 获得职位推荐、筛选工作和保存工作搜索结果
  • 参与读者讨论和公布评论
注册

欢迎反馈

Log in or register to post comments