Are “excellence”-based funding schemes really working?

Are “excellence”-based funding schemes really working?

Germany’s Excellence Strategy programs

Over the last months, the GWK (the Joint Research Conference) – an agency in which the federal government and the state governments (die Länder) make decisions on federal research programs – worked on launching the Excellence Strategy meant to boost Germany’s research profile. The programs need to be approved by Angela Merkel’s cabinet on June 16th. Today, a debate on this topic will take place in the German Lower House of Representatives (Bundestag).

The Excellence Strategy is composed of three programs: the Excellence Initiative, the Innovative Universities program and the Nachwuchspakt. Looking at the goal of each program and its budget, a summary follows:

  • Excellence Initiative
    • Annual budget: 533 mil EUR
    • Goal: Funding excellence clusters and excellence universities
  • Innovative Universities program
    • Annual budget: 55 mil EUR
    • Goal: Funding small universities and applied science universities (Fachhochschulen)
  • Nachwuchspakt
    • Annual budget: 100 mil EUR
    • Goal: Creating 1,000 tenure track positions

Yesterday, I posted a detailed analysis of the Nachwuchspakt. Today I would like to cover the Excellence Initiative.

An overview of the Excellence Initiative

First launched in 2005/2006, the Excellence Initiative aimed to advance science and research at German universities. A total of 45 graduate schools and 43 excellence clusters were funded. In addition, 11 universities were labelled as excellence universities and set to become the German Ivy-League.

The Excellence Initiative will expire in October 2017. As a consequence, its extension has been a hot topic of discussion since the beginning of this year. The program was evaluated by the Imboden Commission, an independent international commission, which reported on its findings at the end of January 2016. The commission recommended the program’s continuation with some modifications. The report was welcomed by the science organizations while the GEW (the German education and research trade union) reacted differently.

In April, based on the Imboden Commission’s recommendations, the GWK proposed a plan for the renewal of the Excellence Initiative. In GWK’s plan, excellence clusters and excellence universities would continue while funding for the graduate schools would be discontinued.

The program has to be democratically discussed in the Bundestag, but a previous debate set for May 9th was cancelled. The opposition protested and today – June 3rd – the debate will take place at 11:10. It will last one hour and can be streamed live here.

In order to better understand today’s debate, I have summarized some criticisms of the Excellence Initiative.

The Excellence Initiative did not elevate German research in the international arena

The concept behind the Excellence Initiative was that investment in the best universities, and consequently the best researchers, would elevate German research in the international arena. In spite of what the governing bodies and those labeled as “excellent” assume, it did not work. Interestingly, researchers from social sciences predicted this outcome.

It is tempting to think that investing in the best researchers will produce the best research. The concept is easy to grasp. However, behavioural economics has proven multiple times that real life is not that easy. In order to predict investment outcomes, we need to consider the whole system of social interactions.

In terms of science economics, in the sixties, Robert Merton described the notion of the Matthew effect in science (he revised it 20 years later). In short, the Matthew effect describes how eminent scientists will often get more credit than unknown researchers. Consequently, they will accumulate advantages leading to their being rewarded more funding. The bottom line is that when trying to select the best, the famous will be selected instead.

Furthermore, in 2013, Jean-Michel Fortin and David Currie published a study on research projects funded in Canada concluding that the “few big” strategy is less effective than the “many small” strategy. They showed that concentrating research funds on “elite” researchers in the name of “excellence” is not consistent with increases on total impact of the scientific community; the research impact per euro remains constant or decreases with grant size.

The phenomenon described by Robert Merton’s Matthew and the conclusions drawn from Jean-Michel Fortin’s and David Currie’s study perfectly describe what happened with the German excellence universities.

According to the Matthew effect, when universities and researchers are labelled as ‘excellent’, they will then accumulate most of the funding. This was also shown by the DFG (German Research Foundation) – statistics for the funding awarded over the last three years. While projects from 210 universities were funded, the top ten universities received ⅓ of the 6.7 billion EUR. There is an overlap between these ten most funded universities and the 11 excellence universities. But does an investment in the 11 excellence universities result in a surge in Germany’s research excellence-rate? (Excellence-rate indicates the amount – in % – of an institution’s scientific output that is included into the set of the 10% of the most cited papers in their respective scientific field.)

Over the last decade, Germany was consistently ranked 5th in the world – after Switzerland, Netherlands, the US and the UK – in terms of excellence-rate in science. This lack of increase in the total impact on the scientific community when a few are excessivelly funded was expected from the Fortin & Currie study.

In addition, internationally, the German excellence universities underperform other excellence-based groups of research universities. As was recently discussed in the Times of Higher Education, when compared to the UK’s Russell group – composed of 24 UK universities with excellence in research and teaching – and to the Association of American Universities – composed of 62 leading research universities in the US and Canada – the German excellence universities underperform in terms of international co-authorship and student to faculty ratio. However, in terms of research and institutional funding, the German excellence universities outperform the Russell group by far and receive a similar budget to the Association of American Universities. Hence, putting more money in the system did not result in increased international excellence. But did this funding promote the German excellence universities within the national context?

The answer is no. In terms of highly cited research, the German excellence universities are similar to other German universities: Nature’s news team showed that both groups have improved equally quickly. Similar results were shown in the Times of Higher Education article and predicted by the Fortin & Currie study.

Despite this information, German politicians seem to have learned nothing. The Excellence Initiative will continue. Additionally, the Innovative Universities program will fund small and applied sciences universities with ten times less money than the eleven excellence universities receive alone. All in all, it is business as usual in German academia and one cannot expect progress over the next decade.

Programs such as the Excellence Initiative promote the “hire-and-fire” culture in German academia

While having no effect on Germany’s excellence-rate, the Excellence Initiative has had a negative effect on  junior academics in Germany. I have already written in detail about how the system needs to be restructured such that fewer doctoral candidates get into academia and more tenure track professor and permanent scientific staff positions are created. Even the Imboden commission, in its evaluation of the Excellence Initiative, characterized the situation of the German junior academics as “not quite free of cynicism”. The irony is that recommending the continuation of the Excellence Initiative will maintain this cynical situation by promoting the “hire-and-fire” culture through project-based and time-limited contracts.

Permanent federal government investment in all universities can be an alternative to temporary federal programs based on selection systems that do not work, such as the Excellence Initiative. Before 2014, the federal government could not directly invest in universities, but in 2014, the German constitution changed to specifically allow this type of funding. However, caught in inertia, and without significant pressure from junior researchers, the federal government has chosen instead to continue doing business as usual.

Funding for graduate schools will be discontinued in the new Excellence Initiative

In the renewed Excellence Initiative, the funding for graduate schools will be discontinued and no alternative is offered for doctoral training. The future of the 45 graduate schools funded through the old Excellence Initiative remains in question. Will they continue? If so, who will finance them?

However, doctoral training should not be reserved for a few chosen doctoral candidates. Doctoral training is a right and not a privilege. Europe-wide, the topic of doctoral training has been under discussion for over a decade. The European commission stated in its European Charter for Researchers that employers and funders are responsible for career development, access to research training and continuous development of all researchers. These recommendations are detailed specifically for doctoral candidates in the Principles for Innovative Doctoral Training policy paper. Moreover, the EUA (European Universities Association), an association of European rectors conferences such as the German HRK, has addressed doctoral training through The Salzburg Principles and The Salzburg II Recommendations.

All in all, all doctoral candidates are entitled to doctoral training. This is why all universities should create their own graduate schools.

What can we do to change the situation?

To summarize, funding excellence, as it has been done in Germany, does not improve research outcomes, and it puts junior academics at a disadvantage. Furthermore, temporary funding leads to a collapse in the system when previously funded programs, such as the graduate schools, are discontinued. A better alternative would be for the federal government to continuously invest directly into all German universities.

Yet, nothing will change if these programs are not met with backlash from our side. This is why it is important to follow the debate and voice our concerns. Opposition to the Excellence Initiative can be heard through this petition, which has so far gathered almost 2,700 signatures. Furthermore, individual opinions matter and this is why I have encouraged my followers to directly address the GWK politicians who are responsible for the details of the Excellence Strategy programs, either through email or through social media. Other politicians who need to hear your opinions are the ones debating today in the Bundestag – the members of the Committee for Education, Research and Technology. You can either write to them directly, or use this form on the Bundestag webpage (in the subject line add “An: Ausschuss für Bildung, Forschung und Technikfolgenabschätzung Re: Exzellenzinitiative”). Now it is more important than ever to #spam4academia!

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