Brussels, 16 July 2002
Too heavy a concentration on excellence in research funding could reduce the diversity of both subjects covered and type of researchers working on projects, according to a new article published by Jordi Molas-Gallart and Ammon Salter in the publication IPTS report (institute for prospective studies).
Policies which reward excellent research will simply create a smaller and smaller base to fund and reduce the diversity of the results reached, the authors argue. With the Sixth Framework programme's emphasis on networks of excellence, the authors say that these 'should be organised in such a way as to make them flexible, responsive to emerging research areas and open to newcomers.'
Without a specific emphasis on maintaining diversity, it is possible that not only science but also business and society at large could be affected. The business and industrial sector has relied on researchers as problem solvers, as well as being able to apply scientific and engineering skills to these areas. 'Cutting off research funding to a large number of these universities would disconnect many students from the research process, thus reducing the supply of scientists and technicians trained in research methods and techniques' the authors claim.
A definition of excellence is also something which would help in clarifying how 'funding excellence' would work. As the authors point out, if excellence is comparative, then there would be no emphasis on funding the other, mediocre, research. But by reducing the range of research carried out, there would also be a reduction of the potential for new innovations to emerge. And neglecting certain areas in the past has proved a mistake. 'Software engineers, for instance, were often treated as low-grade technicians by traditional electrical engineering departments, and they had to locate their work at low status universities.' Now these same people play a key role.
Even if there is an emphasis on the research in excellence, there needs to be an appropriate safety measure for the other 'non-excellent' research. In the USA, there is the national science foundation's (NSF) EPSCoR (experimental programme to stimulate competitive research), which addresses excessive concentration of research funding. It allocates special backing to US States which receive a small share of NSF research funds (0.7 per cent or less averaged over three years). Some 21 States plus Puerto Rico are benefiting from this scheme.
The authors recommend that a 'portfolio' approach to research funding be adopted. This is where the funding is spread widely, and there is an understanding that there will be failures. But it is a funding technique which is used in the hope that the benefits from the large scale successful results fund the failures, thereby paying a small price to maintain diversity in the range of subjects.
'Space needs to be created for ambitious research, research that does not fit inside the bounds of traditional disciplines and does not appear to fit conventional models of excellence,' say the authors. 'By definition, average research can never be eliminated and it is futile to pursue its eradication.'
For further information, please contact:
Edificio Expo WTC
c/Inca Garcilaso s/n