Is too much emphasis being placed on excellence?

There is too much emphasis on excellence in science, believes the Rathenau Institute. Academic fields are under pressure and education is suffering.

(Photo: Sander Foederer)

Over the last 30 years, politics has done everything it can to promote excellence in science. One way this was done was to distribute grants among the best scientists. Applicants had to compete for the money.

The budget for ‘excellent research’ more than doubled from EUR 160 million in 2006 to EUR 370 million in 2016. Researchers have to compete for money, both in their own countries and in Europe.

Excellence is an important aspiration for TU Delft as well, is what emerges from the Strategic Framework 2018-2024. Along with ‘impact, involvement and openness’, excellence is one of the four ‘most important assumptions’ of the years to come. During the presentation of the Framework, the then Board member, Anka Mulder, said that a focus on excellence is a precondition to contributing to a better society.

Lost time
The emphasis on excellence needs ‘reconsideration’, writes the Rathenau Institute in ‘Excellent is niet gewoon(excellent is not the norm), an advisory report to Parliament. Scientists are spending ever more time on competing with each other while the quality differences in their work are not that big.

‘It is strange that everyone has to be excellent’

‘Ordinary research’ is also valuable, the Rathenau Institute stresses. Not everything has to be excellent. It is strange that everyone has to be excellent. This is by definition impossible. Furthermore, quality is not always recognised if scientists works by themselves or do little conventional research.

Perhaps these excellent programmes should only focus on exceptional science, suggests the Rathenau Institute. In this case, a significantly reduced budget would be needed for the Veni, Vidi and Vici grants for excellent scientists at various stages of their careers. The remaining money could be spent on thematic research or simply given directly to universities to spend as they see fit.

If not, the definition of excellent should be re-visited. “The label excellent is reserved for excellent fundamental research that appears in top journals,” asserts the Rathenau Institute. “It should also apply to excellent education, special forms of collaboration, exceptional valorisation activities and so on.”

The report is part of the stream of criticism on work pressure

This is not the Holy Grail, say the researchers. The advantage is that you can be excellent in all sorts of ways, but the disadvantage is that the same problems can also turn up in excellent education, excellent collaboration and so on.

The report is part of the stream of criticism on competition and work pressure in science and this is also affecting education. The protest movement, WOinActie, wants the government to give significantly more money to higher education and research in the hope that it reduces the work pressure. Others, such as Professor Willem Schinkel, stress that the work pressure arises from the system itself rather than the budget.

HOP, Bas Belleman

HOP Hoger Onderwijs Persbureau

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