The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) is currently running a public consultation process to define how research “excellence” should be assessed in future (#REF2021), and many EU Member States are keeping a close eye, as they base their models on the one in the UK.
To stir up the issue, the authors of a recent publication ““Excellence R Us”: university research and the fetishisation of excellence” argue that,
“used in its current unqualified form (excellence) is a pernicious and dangerous rhetoric that undermines the very foundations of good scholarship”
This is of course not news. Respected members of the academic community all the way up to Nobel winners have repeated the message for some time (cf The Guardian 9 Dec 2013; AAAS CEO Alan Leshner at ESOF2014).
The sentiment is again echoed in the London School of Economics Impact Blog opinion piece, and brings painful reality to the debate. The authors argue that “if researchers continue to be assessed using such narrow criteria, scientific research activities will become further dislocated from the needs of the society” and point to examples in developing countries where this is already the case today.
Funders recognise the issue, and the European Commission is investing in 2016/2017 research projects to exactly “redefine excellence away from high-profile journal publications and patents alone”, and include other skillset in research performance like transparency, reproducbility, re-use of data, capacity to engage public and citizen science and translate research in the context of societal challenges.
Although it may take 3-5 years for the such measure to emerge, and probably even longer for them to be widely accepted, we may need not wait that long to see the detrimental effects. Young researchers applying for competitive grants frequently define the impact of their research by the very narrow criteria criticised above, and the negative impact is very measurable: reproducibility is questioned in fields like psychology and cancer biology, and research grants are less competitive, as “excellence” alone does not secure funds (cf Winning Horizon2020 with Open Science).
This poses the question: If current excellence training curricula are based on narrow criteria already being heavily redesigned, is academia doing a dis-service to post-graduates training in a school near you?
Should graduate schools wait for the tone to be set, or act early and reshape training focus to match the anticipated broader “excellence” indicators, based on which current graduates will be evaluated by the time they reach mid-career?
This may appear as a Catch-22 situation, but for the first schools to move in on the opportunity, the advantage is likely to be significant.