The effect of excellence funding on academic research prac-tices: comparing 16 Dutch research groups

Wout Scholten, Laurens Hessels, L. van Drooge

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In the last 25 years academic research in The Netherlands has seen a rise of excellence oriented research policy instruments. These excellence funding schemes aim to selectively support high-performing and high-potential individuals or organizations, in order to increase differentiation within the science system. The Netherlands is not the only western country that has witnessed a rise of excellence funding instruments. Almost all OECD countries have implemented policies to foster research excellence (OECD 2014). In Scandinavian countries excellent collaborating groups of re-searchers are funded in Centers of Excellence. In Germany, the Exzellenzinitiative was introduced as new funding scheme for the best universities, research clusters and research schools. At the European level the European Research Council (ERC) has implemented several excellence grants since 2007. So far, scholars have identified a number of effects of excellence policies at the institutional level or the science system level (Langfeldt et al. 2015; Borlaug 2015), or have focused on the effects of one specific policy instrument (European Research Council 2012). However, there is limited under-standing of the effects of combined excellence policies on the organization and production of knowledge at group level. This paper aims to fill that gap. It builds on our previous analysis of the influence of excellence policies on excellent groups (Hessels et al. 2016), i.e. groups that have ac-cumulated excellence funding. In this paper we complement this analysis with an analysis of the effects of excellence policies on research groups that have not acquired excellence funding, and it deepens our understanding of the effects of excellence policies considerably. Excellence policies are affecting research within academic institutions. Academic careers are in-creasingly dependent on a researcher’s success in the excellence funding schemes (Van Arensber-gen 2014). The tendency to quantify the notion of excellence has led to research evaluation practic-es based on criteria such as the number of published articles, the journal impact factor, the number of citations and the amount of grants received (O’Connor & O’Hagan 2015)). Furthermore, the tem-poral character of excellence funding favors a project based organization of performing research, and research institutions adjust their allocation models to stimulate researchers to attract external funding (Koier et al. 2016). The authors of the EURECIA-report on the effects of the ERC conclude that the grant scheme has impact on the research of a grantee, on the symbolic capital and the ca-reer (European Research Council 2012). Scholars have expressed a number of concerns about the fundamental ideas underlying the excel-lence policies, i.e. creating differentiation in the science system through competition and selection. They argue that excellence policies may create a system where the 'winner takes all', that the focus on competition may hinder cooperation (Müller 2014), or that the quality of education and broader impact recede into the background (Stilgoe 2014). In our paper we focus on the practices of researchers and research groups and we analyze the in-terplay between excellence funding and institutional policies on the one hand and academic research practices on the other. More specifically we explore the consequences of excellence policies for a broad range of research groups: from those that have gathered a number of excellence grants and prizes, to those that lack this type of finance at all. Further, we study the effects of excellence poli-cies and excellence funding on the relationships between research groups and their institutional con-text. Finally, we explore the influence of excellence funding on epistemic choices of researchers. We conceptualise the research practices of research groups in terms of the ‘credibility cycle’ as introduced by Latour and Woolgar (1986). This quasi-economic model explains the behavior of indi-vidual scientists by their need for credibility. We translate this model to the group level and explore the effects of excellence funding on the incentives and rewards structuring the work of an academic research group. The original credibility cycle is concerned with gaining credit within a community of peers. We add an institutional aspect since multiple elements of the cycle (recognition, money, staff and equipment) can also be influenced by the research institution of a research group. We performed an analysis of sixteen research groups at Dutch academic institutions. Four of these research groups were identified as ‘excellent’. They have shown the ability to collect large amounts of excellence funding from governmental funding bodies on the basis of their ‘excellent’ reputation and high-quality research proposals. We studied the four excellent research groups in detail by car-rying out approximately ten interviews per group supplemented by a document analysis (self-evaluations, policy documents, financial accounts, etc.). The results of the four excellent research groups are then compared to interviews with twelve group leaders of ‘non-excellent research groups’, again supplemented by a document analysis. Non-excellent groups are, in this paper, de-fined as groups that have not collected (large amounts of) excellence funding, regardless of the reasons for this situation and regardless of their academic quality. The sixteen cases were selected, in addition to their status as ‘excellent’ or ‘non-excellent’, by using two dimensions: the degree of strategic task uncertainty (Whitley, 1984) and the degree of collabo-ration. We expect these dimensions to influence the interplay between excellence funding and aca-demic research practices. For every resulting quadrant we selected four cases: one excellent re-search group and three non-excellent research groups. This enabled us to make a systematic com-parison between research groups within each quadrant. We observe that the concept of excellence and the excellence policies are ever present in the re-search practices of both excellent and non-excellent groups. Every group needs to relate to and take part in the ‘game’ for excellence and excellence funding. Some non-excellent groups are con-nected to excellence policies only through the institutional pressure they feel to (reluctantly) take part in the competition for excellence funding. Some excellent groups, on the other hand, associate strongly with the excellence policy. Other groups are positioned somewhere in between. We have seen no group that could operate completely isolated from the excellence policies. Furthermore, excellent groups experience more autonomy than their non-excellent counterparts in deciding on their staff, their budget and research topics. The non-excellent groups have less lever-age in the negotiations with their organizational superiors. The external recognition that comes with obtaining excellence funds is important for internal (institutional) recognition and autonomy. We further observe an epistemic relation between types of funding and research practices. Since the room for funding research questions through direct block funding is strongly diminished, external funding is a necessary condition to start new research projects. Of all available external funding options, the excellence funding schemes tend to give the grantees the most space to follow their own research interests. Other external (non-excellence) funding possibilities are more restraining in terms of deliverables, accountability, social relevance and arrangements with (international) consor-tia. This may explain why non-excellent groups feel more restrained in their choice of research topics and adjust their research agenda to diverse funding organizations, whereas excellent groups experi-ence more autonomy to set their own agenda.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 07 Jun 2017
EventEu-SPRI Annual Conference 2017: The future of STI - The future of STI-policy - Vienna, Austria
Duration: 07 Jun 201709 Jun 2017


ConferenceEu-SPRI Annual Conference 2017
Abbreviated titleEu-SPRI 2017
Internet address


  • Research excellence
  • science policy

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    Scholten, W., Hessels, L., & van Drooge, L. (2017). The effect of excellence funding on academic research prac-tices: comparing 16 Dutch research groups. Abstract from Eu-SPRI Annual Conference 2017, Vienna, Austria.