Three ways Centers of Excellence influence the work of scientists

Imagine being a minister in a government and having political responsibility for research in a whole country. Suppose you wonder how good your researchers really are. How can you find out? Some activities researchers do can be measured, so you do that: you measure, you count, you tally, and you end up with some numbers on your desk.

Of course, numbers alone won’t answer your question; you need something to compare them to, so you give your minister colleagues in a couple of neighboring countries a call. Unfortunately, those conversations leave you concerned that the performance of your researchers is weak by comparison.

This relative weakness is underscored when you notice the way other ministries in your government are spending money on research. Your colleagues over at the Ministry of Finance, for example, can’t seem to shovel money to Brussels fast enough. You’d like to get this money back; in fact, your job includes making sure the research sector of your country functions so well that many scientists will write grants that win in EU competitions.

But when you check up on how things are actually going with those competitions, you’re not where you think you should be. And with each passing year, the percentage of money returned through successful grant writing is actually going down. On the relative scale, when it comes to EU applications, your country is getting worse.

To get a more detailed picture of where you have strong research groups and where you have weak ones, you ask for specific evaluations of different fields. International panels are engaged. As you look through their reports, you frequently read that your researchers are good. Maybe sometimes they’re even very good. But it’s far too seldom that you see reviews of individual fields telling you that some particular group is actually great.

The next step is to get an international review done of the entire university sector. Maybe this is what you need to start to act. You ask for that evaluation, and the results are blunt:

  1. Not enough of your researchers are performing at the levels seen in their colleagues internationally.
  2. Your government and research council don’t offer sufficiently predictable, long-term funding to fascinate basic research.
  3. There is too little international collaboration.
  4. You don’t have a clear strategy for moving forward.
  5. Your scientists work with very little leadership or strategic guidance and, indeed, are suspicious of the very notion.

If you’re a minister, you simply can’t accept this feedback without taking action. Speaking somewhat liberally, this is where Norway was about 15 years ago. This is the context in which the government started thinking about a program to create Centers of Excellence.

After looking at strategies for dealing with comparable situations elsewhere, the Norwegian Center of Excellence program was created. It was announced in 2001; a process was completed in 2002 that identified 13 groups which opened centers in 2003. And now that first cohort of 13 centers has reached the end of its 10-year period. It’s time to evaluate.

Has the Center of Excellence program worked? Is it worth it? What kinds of changes has the CoE program triggered in Norway? Should we continue the current pattern of creating new centers every 5th year?

Not surprisingly, those who have been part of a CoE view the arrangement as immensely successful. The CoE grants have indeed created long-term economic stability. They have created conditions for doing more and better research. The centers have achieved international prominence. They have been able to develop and nurture whole communities of graduate students and post docs.

But it’s also important to ask what the centers have meant for others. What do they mean for those who are in the immediate vicinity of a center? What do they mean to the universities and research institutes that host them?

As a contribution to moving the evaluation process forward, I will write about three debates triggered by the CoEs in Norway — debates about foundational issues in the organization of a national research system. These examples involve the use of pecuniary resources and autonomy, the use of human resources, and the professionalization of leadership.

I address each one of these in independent posts over the coming days. Stay tuned!

PS: The easiest way to stay tuned, is to subscribe by writing your email address in the box below.

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more


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