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

July 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.


Print headline: An era of excess ‘excellence’?

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Nations are increasingly making conscious efforts to propel a subset of their universities into the global elite. But are such aspirations ever met? And, if they are, is that a blessing or a curse for those institutions denied entry to the club? Simon Baker examines the issues and the numbers

11 June