Money, autonomy, and Centers of Excellence

Just because your job is to do research, you can’t assume you’ll have the money you need to carry it out. At least that’s how it works at universities.

You might need to hire others to help you with projects; you might need to buy equipment; you might need to pay subjects to participate in your studies. Many universities can afford to give you some of the money you need, but none can give you all of it.

Because of this, researchers are constantly applying for external funds. These come from private endowments, from various government resources, and especially from national research councils.

In Norway, we’re marking the 10th anniversary of the creation of the ultimate research fund jackpot, namely Centers of Excellence. I’m writing a short series of posts on how they influence the work of scientists. The CoEs have triggered a number of debates and of course the most basic of these involve money.

One of the more interesting money debates revolves around the ways universities decide how to use finite funds on research. In Norway, the CoE program has been extremely prestigious right from the start. The research council calls it their flagship program and they claim that the selection process was the most thorough selection process they have ever undertaken. All universities hope to host a CoE. But how much do they cost?

The foundational documents for the program are vague about how much the host institutions should contribute to the budget, but they do say that it should be an amount demonstrating “that the host institution places a high priority on establishing the center as a means to strengthen quality and competency at the institution.”

With a statement like that, we might wonder how much autonomy universities really have. Doesn’t a requirement to contribute substantial funds mean that the research council gets to decide the priorities of the university? After all, what if a successful applicant group works in an area that the university had not intended to prioritize?

Universities naturally want to develop their own strategy and set their own course. They believe that it is not only their prerogative, but indeed their responsibility to act strategically, to prioritize and to soundly manage their public funds. How can they do this when any group on campus can apply for a CoE, and thereby potentially circumvent university strategies to gain a significant part of the available resources? How many CoEs would it take to completely exhaust the limited funds a university has for strategic investments?

Of course, one might say that the wisest strategy for a university is to invest in those groups that perform best in the most competitive arenae; in other words, nurturing groups that are good enough to get CoEs should perhaps be part of the university strategy. My own university hosts two of Norway’s 21 CoEs: one in theoretical linguistics and the other in computational chemistry. Neither of these subject fields would be prioritized in a top-down process identifying areas for investment. Yet these are the groups that were strong enough to win a center. The university generously supports them. But to a certain extent, that decision was made by others on behalf of the university.

Universities need their autonomy; researchers at universities need external funding. The tension between these two needs is complicated, but at least we’re debating the issue, in no small part thanks to the CoE program.

In the next few days, I”ll be writing about two more debates triggered by the CoEs; they address human resources and the professionalization of university leadership. I hope you’ll follow along. (The easiest way to do that is to write your email address in the box below; if you do, you’ll get a very brief notice when the next installment appears.)

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



  • Maleene de Ridder says:

    Dear Curt,
    Interesting blog about the tension between autonomy and external funding. The tension will always exist, but transparent communication is key in keeping it ‘workable’ for all stakeholders and will help in making choices. I am looking forward to your thoughts on the professionalization of leadership. By the way transparent communication is one of the traits of a good leader….
    Best regards, Maleene de Ridder

    • Curt Rice says:

      Thanks for your input, Maleene! Transparent communication is definitely central to make this and – as you note – anything workable. Another way to think about this tension is as a competition for a university between supporting those who have reached the top and those who show solid potential but aren’t there yet. The first group has an easier time getting external support, so it’s the particular responsibility of the institution to keep funds available for the second group.
      groetjes, curt

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