Main menu

Excellence and inclusion in evaluating research: an irreconcilable conflict?

Science Policy Session 2

Monday, 7 September, 18:30 - 19:45 Hall 9

Promoting excellence in science is the mission of many scientific organizations, including EMBO, and also an aim of many funders, including, for example, the European Research Council. But what does excellence mean? What are the criteria used in assessing excellence in research? In research funding, concentrating on a particular definition of excellence might limit the geographical areas where funding is distributed, and also might exclude the possibility of funding researchers with unconventional career paths. In light of the reality of limited resources, how should funders and other decision makers choose which projects and researchers to support?  

The Science Policy session will focus on these and other questions to contribute to the  discussions on the seemingly irreconcilable concepts of excellence and inclusion in scientific research. 



University College London

Against ‘Excellence’

Excellence is everywhere. Following the Research Excellence Framework, the UK's Universities are all rushing to take credit for their 'excellence'. The UK Government's recent science and innovation strategy talks about “the importance of achieving excellence”. Who would be against that? If quality is good then surely excellence is better? I am not so sure.

In November 2014, the Rome Declaration was published as part of Italy’s presidency of the European Union. The statement calls for Europe to embrace ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’ (RRI), in the service of big social problems such as global health, environmental sustainability, and securing food, energy and water supplies. Few would disagree with the principle of responsible research and innovation. But it remains unclear what it would mean in practice. RRI will certainly involve doing some new things, but it also means addressing possible barriers in the de facto governance of innovation. One of the major obstacles to responsibility will be the way in which we talk about scientific ‘excellence’. As currently imagined within Horizon 2020, scientific excellence is something other than, and a separate pillar from, work on ‘societal challenges’. If we are to nurture a genuinely responsible research and innovation, our idea of ‘excellence’ needs a radical overhaul.

Dr Jack Stilgoe is Senior Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies at University College London. He has spent his professional life in the overlap between science policy research and science policy practice, at the think tank Demos, the Royal Society and at UCL, where he teaches courses on science policy, responsible science and innovation and the governance of emerging technologies. He is a member of the Government’s Sciencewise steering group and the Research Councils UK Public Engagement Advisory Panel, and he is on the editorial board of Public Understanding of Science. Among other papers, pamphlets and other publications, he is the author of The Public Value of Science (Demos, 2007) and Experiment Earth: Responsible Innovation in Geoengineering (Routledge, 2015).


Institute for Molecular and Cell Biology, University of Porto

Scientific excellence: a moving target in a changing environment

In the last few years, “Scientific Excellence” has sprung up in the dictionary of scientists, the evaluation procedures, the founders and specially as part of a discourse that aims to counter act society’s request for scientific accountability in the use of public funding. At the same time that this new reality of Science slowly emerges, it does so in the context of what one could define as “the new social contract for science”. Rather than defining the pursuit of knowledge as a major object of scientific enquiry, the relationships between funding bodies and academic researchers are being reorganized more in terms of customer-contractor relationships so that academic research becomes more responsive to the demands of the various paying customers. This new social contract is not only changing the nature of the scientific enterprise but also repositions the social value of science and questions the whole organization of the scientific enterprise. It is in this context that the notion of scientific excellence as a measure of quality has sprung up in the vocabulary of research institutions and funding bodies. However, how does one define excellence? How is it identified, promoted and maintained? These are just some of the essential questions that need to be addressed in order to ensure that the future of the scientific ecosystem remains healthy and vibrant so as to promote a more just and inclusive social development.

Claudio E. Sunkel is a Full Professor of Molecular Biology at the Biomedical Institute of the University of Porto in Portugal. He is Director of the Institute of Molecular Cellular Biology and Head of the Molecular Genetics Group at the same institute. Since 2000 Dr. Sunkel is a Member of the European Molecular Biology Organization. He was Vice- President of the European Molecular Biology Conference (2007-2010),  Vice-President of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory Council (2010-2012),  Chair of the EMBO Strategic Development Installation Grants Board (2006-2012),  and a member of the Molecules,  Genes and Cells Funding committee of the Wellcome Trust (2006-2009). He is, currently a member of the Wellcome Trust-India Alliance fellowship selection committee (2009-2014) and he was elected Chair of the EMBL Council in 2013. From 2007-2009 Dr. Sunkel was the National Coordinator for the Evaluation of Research Units by the Foundation for Science and Technology of Portugal.