Race for ‘excellence’ funding damaging science, warns thinktank

Competitive funding once helped novel ideas get off the ground, but now funding ‘excellence’ is hampering new research, says Dutch institute

November 16, 2018
Race

Relentless pressure on researchers to produce “excellent” work has gone too far, a Dutch science thinktank has warned, and could now be stifling rather than supporting groundbreaking science.

The conclusion by the Rathenau Institute, which looks at science, technology and innovation, adds to concerns that hyper-competitive funding systems that focus money on a select few scholars may now be counterproductive.

Paul Diederen, one of the authors of the report, said that over the past 30 years, “more money is being spent on this philosophy of stimulating ‘excellence’ without considering…whether it still serves its purpose”.

The authors of Excellence is not common, who interviewed more than 50 researchers and combed policy and research material about the issue, said that while the original point of competitive excellence funding was to back maverick ideas that would be shunned by universities, the focus on excellence is now seen as a barrier to new thinking.

Leonie van Drooge, a co-author, explained that “25 years ago, the idea was that for certain researchers with strange, wild ideas…there should be external money available”.

But now, researchers interviewed for the report have complained that they had to go through peer review to win excellence funding, making it difficult to win backing for new types of research, and that excellence schemes are sucking money out of traditional block grant funding, making it harder to fund scholars with fresh ideas.

“It’s turned 180 degrees,” said Dr Diederen. Excellence funding was supposed to “break open the system” but is now potentially stifling it, he said. 

Since the mid-1990s, spending in the Netherlands on “excellent” research has skyrocketed from zero to more than €350 million (£309 million) annually, swelled by new prizes, talent schemes, and the European Research Council.

It still only accounts for 14 per cent of all research-related revenue drawn from public sources, according to Rathenau Institute research. Universities still receive sizeable block grants to spend on research as they want, although they often have to draw on this type of funding this to match competitive grants.

The focus on supporting excellence through competition – as opposed to traditional block grants – has spread internationally, from the UK’s research excellence framework assessment exercise to the European Union’s ultra-competitive ERC grants.

But a backlash has begun. Some have questioned whether emphasising “excellence” actually supports good scientific practices, while others have argued for researchers to be given a basic income to support their work, doing away with the bureaucracy of competitive grants.

Some top research groups have been hugely successful in winning excellence funding, said Dr Diederen. “We are not blind to the fact that it has its benefits,” he said. “But we think the whole downsides are starting to get out of balance with the upsides.”

Ms van Drooge added that the culture of chasing excellence grants has also swept up academics who applied even when it was financially unnecessary as they already had tenured positions, and this is a contributing factor to a stress crisis among Dutch researchers.

Success rates at the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research are now between 15 and 20 per cent, she said. At any one time, around 5 per cent of Dutch researchers hold an excellence grant, according to Rathenau Institute research.

The report suggests two possible changes: cut down the amount of money given over to “excellence” schemes, or try to redefine and broaden the term so it can encompass areas such as teaching too.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

This paper is also consistent with the view that funding strategies that target diversity, rather than “excellence”, may be more productive to promote research. http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0065263

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