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Report
17 January 2019

Excellence is extra-ordinary

Thirty years of focus on excellence in Dutch science policy
Scientific excellence Funding Grants
In this report we analyze thirty years of excellence policy and its effects on research and researchers. We also give options to do things differently.

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Summary

For thirty years, fostering excellence in science has been a key objective of Dutch science policy. Over the years, ever more policy instruments have been added, in the form of grants and prizes.

Today, excellence has become an essential core value – after all, no one can object to excellence. At the same time, many people see this focus on excellence as the cause of a development within science that they do object to:

  • increased competition;
  • the pressure to publish; and
  • the ever greater discrepancies in the appropriation of research funding among research groups.

These developments form the background for this report.

Purpose, questions and approach

In this report, the Rathenau Instituut describes the effects of a set of policy instruments that encourage excellence in science, such as the Talent Scheme (with the Veni, Vidi and Vici Grants) and the ERC Grants from the European Research Council. The aims of this report are to give an insight into the effects of the excellence policy on research practice, and to offer perspectives for adjusting that policy.

We address two questions. The first relates to the way in which excellence in research is fostered: does it deliver the intended result, and is it effective? The second considers the various tasks of the universities: does this one-sided focus on excellent research upset the balance at universities?

The results and conclusions of this report are based on an analysis of quantitative and qualitative data. We have used the following sources:

  • policy texts and political debates;
  • figures collected systematically by the research funding bodies;
  • more than fifty interviews with researchers;
  • discussions with other stakeholders;
  • and scientific literature and previously published reports.

Effective excellence policy: big impact with limited budget

This analysis shows that the policy for scientific excellence has been effective, over the past thirty years. Despite their limited budget, the grants and prizes exercise a strong guiding influence on the science system and the performance of research groups. This impact is in line with the objectives of the excellence policy. The policy has resulted in:

  • the selection of a relatively small number of researchers;
  • the concentration of resources within this group; and
  • differentiation between research groups with ample funding and those with a restricted budget.

It has emerged that excellence funding gives researchers and research groups a relatively considerable degree of freedom to set their own course and lay down their own research lines. Furthermore, success breeds success, thereby creating opportunities for acquiring new excellence funding and ensuring continuity.

Unintended effects of the excellence policy

In addition to the intended effects, the policy has revealed three negative consequences:

  1. The system of allocation of research budgets on a competitive basis is becoming increasingly costly and time-consuming. The quality differences between many grant applications are so minimal that coincidence and luck are becoming important factors in the awarding of grants. Furthermore, the reputation of a grant applicant starts to play a role: a previous winner has a greater likelihood of receiving a new grant or prize. Together this raises the question of whether the selection process is still effective and efficient, and whether it truly selects on the basis of innovation and talent.
  2. The focus on excellent research leads to less attention and appreciation for the other core tasks of the university: education and knowledge exchange. It is also at the expense of other valuable research that fails to satisfy the dominant ideas on what is excellent, and as such also fails to satisfy the criteria of the excellence programmes. As a result, for example, individual, interdisciplinary, interactive and non-mainstream research easily becomes disadvantaged.
  3. Research groups without excellence funding feel constant pressure to acquire precisely that form of funding, which in turn only further increases their pressure of work. This not only relates to financial necessity, but also the status furnished by such grants and prizes.

Options for adjustment of the excellence policy

Where should we go from here?

  1. One possibility is to continue on the present course.
  2. One alternative option is to (once again) reserve the use of excellence for the truly exceptional; for developments that stand out above all others.
  3. Another possibility would be to apply the term to first-class education, remarkable forms of cooperation, exceptional valorisation activities, etc.

All options have advantages and disadvantages. We explain them in the Recommendations tab.

Preferred citation:
Scholten, W., L. van Drooge and P. Diederen (2018). Excellence is extra-ordinary – Thirty years of focus on excellence in Dutch science policy. The Hague: Rathenau Instituut

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Recommendations

This report call upon all stakeholders – researchers, administrators, funders and policymakers – to reconsider the meaning of excellence in today’s academic context, and how it can best be fostered. The challenge is to arrive at a vision of a balanced relationship between the various tasks of the university, and then translate that vision into appropriate forms of funding.

There are 3 options:

  1. One possibility is to continue on the present course. In that case, disadvantages such as constant pressure from competition and the lower status of education and knowledge exchange are simply the price that has to be accepted in return for a leading position in the academic rankings.

    It is highly questionable whether this option is in fact tenable. The unintended side effects are broadly recognised as clear obstacles, and represent sound reasons for investigating possible alternatives.

     
  2. One alternative option is to no longer employ excellence as a general standard but to (once again) reserve its use for the truly exceptional; for developments that stand out above all others. This would require universities to concentrate on ‘sound scientific research’: sound research is good while excellent research is truly exceptional – and as such not the standard that everyone should be expected to meet.

    It would also call upon the funding bodies to give excellence programmes a truly exclusive character, for example by considerably reducing the budget for the Talent Scheme, thereby freeing up funds for spending elsewhere.

     
  3. Another possibility would be to introduce differentiation into the term excellence rather than restricting its scope. Instead of applying the designation ‘excellent’ exclusively to excellent fundamental research, which is published in leading scientific journals, making sure it is also applied to first-class education, remarkable forms of cooperation, exceptional valorisation activities, etc. After all, a university that meets a variety of societal needs can certainly stand out in more than one direction.

    Introducing differentiation to the term excellence could help re-establish the balance between the tasks of the universities. Such an approach does however engender the risk that a number of bottlenecks, such as the high costs of budget apportionment and the emphasis of performance measurement, will also start to emerge with regard to the other tasks of the universities.