The Trouble With Excellence
by Jack Stilgoe, The Guardian Newspaper (UK), 12/19/14.
No scientific organisation is complete without an aspiration towards excellence. The Royal Society promotes ‘excellence in science’. Conferences bear titles like ‘Excellence 2012’ (with the strapline ‘Excellence revisited – the value of excellence’). Places from Nairobi to New York are looking to build ‘centres of excellence’. Developing countries, with the encouragement of bodies like the World Bank and the Commission for Africa, construct copycat science policies that aim to catch up with the world’s scientific leaders in a form of race, downplaying local needs and strengths.
In October my institution, University College London, celebrated two events that are both in my view excellent: a Nobel Prize for neuroscientist John O’Keefe and the launch of an Engineering Exchange, working with local communities to conduct research projects relevant to their needs that. Only one of those would satisfy the standard criteria for excellence set by many institutions.
‘Excellence’ is an old-fashioned word appealing to an old-fashioned ideal. ‘Excellence’ tells us nothing about how important the science is and everything about who decides. It is code for decision-making based on the autonomy of scientists. Excellence is judged by peers and backed up by numbers such as h-indexes and journal impact factors, all of which reinforces disciplinary boundaries and focuses scientists’ attention inwards rather than on the problems of the outside world. Scientometrics work by Ismael Rafols and colleagues has revealed how journal rankings discourage interdisciplinarity by systematically evaluating disciplinary research more highly. When added to the other institutional pressures of reward and recognition in science, we might regard ‘excellence’ as something worthy of policy scrutiny rather than blind support.
Prioritizing ‘excellent’ research perpetuates the reproduction of scientific elites and the concentration of scientific research in particular disciplines and places. Robert Merton called it the Matthew Effect after the Gospel relating Jesus’s parable of the talents: ‘unto every one that hath shall be given… but from him that hath not shall be taken away’.
The European Research Council (ERC) claims it uses “excellence to recognise excellence”. It is ironic that the ERC’s erstwhile president, Helga Nowotny, has long wrestled with the definition of excellence as a science policy scholar. In 2012 she claimed “excellence itself is multidimensional”. After standing down in 2013 she acknowledged that narrow criteria of excellence would indeed tend to concentrate research funding.
Twenty years ago, Nowotny and her co-authors recognized in a book that if academic research was to serve society there would have to be “a redefinition of excellence among academics, of their career aspirations, of their disciplinary contributions, and their institutional loyalties.” Their book described science moving from ‘Mode 1’ to ‘Mode 2’:
“Success in Mode 1 might perhaps be summarily described as excellence defined by disciplinary peers. In Mode 2 success would have to include the additional criteria such as efficiency or usefulness, defined in terms of the contribution the work has made to the overall solution of transdisciplinary problems.” (p. 33)
They went on to argue that, as universities reconsider their place in societies and economies, there needs to be “a redefinition of excellence among academics, of their career aspirations, of their disciplinary contributions, and their institutional loyalties.” (p. 156)
That has not happened. Instead our sense of excellence has narrowed. In response to growing pressure on scientists to demonstrate their relevance, ‘excellence’ has taken on a negative definition, as the opposite of ‘impact’. In Britain, Research Councils and the REF now talk about ‘excellence with impact’. Researchers are asked to show how their work influences the real world but ‘impact’ is an end-of-pipe idea. There is no consideration upstream of socially-important important research or, as Nature put it in a 2013 special issue, ‘the science that matters’.