ERC President Maria Leptin’s speech at the Coimbra Group High-Level Seminar on Research Policy, Brussels:
“Achieving Excellence at Universities: What does it mean in times of multiple crises?”
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Today you are discussing how to achieve excellence at universities, especially in these times of multiple crises. To contribute to your deliberations, I have been asked to provide a critical and prospective stance on excellence and open science.
The world is facing multiple, interconnected crises
To start I think that we can all agree that we are now living through unprecedented times. Even before the terrible events we are now witnessing in the Middle East people had started to describe the situation the world is facing as a “polycrisis”.
The term “polycrisis” describes a situation where multiple crises are interconnected, leading to compounded effects that can be more severe than each crisis individually. These crises range from the after effects of the pandemic, climate change and shortages in natural resources, to rising inequality and geopolitical conflicts. These are times that test the resilience and adaptability of all our institutions, including our universities.
Universities, as enduring institutions with a critical role in society, face a unique challenge in the wake of current global crises.
The COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally disrupted traditional teaching and research methods, necessitating a rapid shift to digital platforms and remote learning.
Climate change presents a more complex challenge, as it calls for universities to lead in sustainability research and to adapt their operations towards greener practices at the same time as resource shortages are raising costs, affecting research funding and access to necessary materials.
The conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, as well as strained relations between Western countries and China, pose significant challenges to international scientific collaboration. Such geopolitical tensions can lead to restrictions on the sharing of knowledge, breakdowns in joint research initiatives, and barriers to the free movement of researchers. Sanctions and political standoffs may result in the severing of formal partnerships and limit access to critical research infrastructure. Moreover, the ethical concerns surrounding collaboration with entities from countries involved in conflicts may further complicate international engagement, leading to a more fragmented global scientific community. These factors underscore the fragility of international cooperation in times of geopolitical strife.
Rising inequality poses a different test. Universities have the mission to serve as equalizers in society by providing opportunities for upward mobility. However, socio-economic crises can strain this mission, as they may lead to reduced funding and a potential narrowing of access to higher education. The global disparity in the impact of these crises also raises questions of equity and inclusivity across different regions.
The polycrisis is therefore prompting a re-evaluation of current systems and raises the possibility of radical changes in university operations and missions. Universities might need to develop new strategies to navigate these complexities, ensuring that they remain resilient and adapt to the shifting landscape.
The enduring mission of universities
But despite these challenges, and the necessity to adapt, the essential mission of universities—to educate, to research, and to contribute to society—remains critical. While the methods and focus areas may shift in response to crises, the fundamental goals endure. For example the digital transformation, while a response to a crisis, may also be seen as a permanent enrichment of the university’s toolkit, expanding access to education. Universities have historically been beacons of continuity amidst change, suggesting that while they must adapt to crises, their core mission is likely to withstand the test of these tumultuous times.
And we can be somewhat reassured by the long history of some of our universities and the fact that they have had to adapt many times before.
Universities have long served as the heart of intellectual advancement. From the inception of the earliest universities in medieval Europe, they have been centres for inquiry and guardians of knowledge. The mission of the university has been steadfast: to foster learning, advance research, and contribute to society. This mission, though constant in its essence, has been shaped by the societal context of each era.
In the Renaissance, universities began to lay the groundwork for the modern research institution, cultivating not only a repository of existing knowledge but also a crucible for new ideas. By the Enlightenment, the focus expanded to include the dissemination of knowledge as a public good.
The Industrial Revolution ushered in scientific and technological studies at universities, aligning academic endeavours with the economic and social needs of the time. The 20th Century saw the democratization of higher education, broadening access and diversifying academic disciplines.
Today, universities within the Coimbra Group, many with roots stretching back to the 15th century, embody this rich heritage. They have evolved from exclusive medieval institutions to modern entities that balance tradition with innovation, confronting global challenges while preserving their core mission.
As we stand in the 21st Century, the mission endures, but our strategies must be agile. The pursuit if knowledge remains our core mission, but how we approach this goal must adapt. We are tasked with preparing minds to navigate a constantly changing world, requiring universities to be both repositories of past wisdom and cradles for future advances.
What universities should remember in the face of crises
But, especially in the context of the most recent discourse resulting from the situation in the Middle East (though I don’t think most of it deserves the term discourse), I actually think that everything that needs to be said on this topic is expressed in a way that cannot be improved upon in a document produced by the University of Chicago in 1967 by the Kalven Committee [i].
The Committee was appointed in February 1967 by President George W. Beadle and requested to prepare “a statement on the University’s role in political and social action.”
And I would simply like to read what they said:
“In its own discussions, the Committee has found a deep consensus on the appropriate role of the university in political and social action. It senses some popular misconceptions about that role and wishes, therefore, simply to reaffirm a few old truths and a cherished tradition.
A university has a great and unique role to play in fostering the development of social and political values in a society. The role is defined by the distinctive mission of the university and defined too by the distinctive characteristics of the university as a community. It is a role for the long term.
The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge. Its domain of inquiry and scrutiny includes all aspects and all values of society. A university faithful to its mission will provide enduring challenges to social values, policies, practices, and institutions. By design and by effect, it is the institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones. In brief, a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.
The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars. To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.”
That in my view is what universities have to remember in the face of crises.
Can the concept of excellence provide us with guidance on the way forward?
So in these times, can the concept of excellence provide us with guidance on the way forward? Is it another universal and enduring principle or something of its time that we should move on from?
Before considering this question we need to define our terms a little.
Because it seems to me that “excellence” has started to become one of those polarising terms that means different things to different people.
To some people, “excellence” has come to mean a deliberate policy of concentrating research funding on an elite group of institutions or individuals, using narrow metrics and creating a closed shop or “Matthew Effect” where “the rich get richer”.
Put this way “excellence” does indeed sound problematic.
But to me, we need to distinguish the “principle of excellence” from the definition of what “excellence” is.
“The principle of excellence” at EU level
At EU level, “the principle of excellence” has a very simple and specific meaning. It means awarding funding to the best proposal or proposals received in a call. Put like that, it is hard to argue with. One might even say, why bother with such an obvious “principle”?
Well, this principle is important in the history of EU research policy. Because there have been many other international research collaboration programmes. And many of these have been (and still are) based on a different principle. Namely the principle of “juste retour” or fair returns.
This is a question of distribution, and an extreme case, and I think it is worth looking at it briefly, because ultimately, it is distribution of resources that we are looking at with all this.
That means researchers in each country should receive funding equal to the funding that their country puts into the programme. The problem with such programmes is that they can be quite inefficient. Sometimes research funding has to be used to duplicate existing facilities. And to balance returns, sometimes even catering or cleaning or IT contracts have to be awarded to different countries.
Imagine if every EU research project had to be implemented by a 27-organisation consortium? Or if it was necessary to build the necessary facilities in each country before a project started?
The founders of the EU’s research programmes were very keen to avoid this. The whole point of the EU is to move beyond this logic of national returns. You cannot build an effective Single Market around the idea that Germany can only export to France the same amount that France exports to Germany. And there would be little point in an EU budget that simply sent back the money to the country where it came from.
The EU budget is designed to provide EU added value. That is, to achieve what the Member States acting alone could not do. So for example, the EU funds infrastructure and other cohesion projects in poor or remote regions. The point is to enable these regions to become better connected, and to catch up with richer regions. The idea is that this will eventually make everyone better off.
Similarly, the EU’s Framework Programme for research is designed to support cross-border collaboration, mobility, infrastructure and competition that would not be possible within one country.
So the “principle of excellence” by itself does not imply concentrating funding on an elite group of institutions or individuals using narrow metrics. And I think it would be very regrettable if the EU Framework Programmes departed from the “principle of excellence”.
What do we mean by excellence?
This question has been answered in many ways.
For the sake of clarity, and as a proper basis for discussion, it seems reasonable to consult dictionaries for a definition of the term. The Oxford English Dictionary describes the noun as ‘the quality of being extremely good,’ Merriam Webster offers ‘the quality of being excellent,’ which in turn is described as ‘very good of its kind; eminently good; first-class’.
Both agree that it is a measure on a scale of quality – and this measure might apply to any entity of interest. It is not a description of a collection of entities that constitute ‘excellence’ in any given situation.
This was important, for example, for the ERC when we discussed research assessment. When we say we judge the excellence of a proposal or researcher, it is not about which criteria we assess, but that for any characteristics and qualities we deem important, we look at whether the proposal or the researcher rank highly in comparison with others. It does not mean that the researcher (or proposal) ticks the boxes for a set of desirables.
Of course, one could, in principle, settle on a definition of excellence where what is in fact judged is the ability to compete in more than one category: a triathlete is judged differently from a pure runner or a pure swimmer. I believe that for universities this can be a sensitive point. How do we judge teaching versus research? Does an excellent university have to be excellent in both? Some countries have pure teaching universities and they don’t fare badly. For most of us, this is not an option. But with the vast numbers of students today, are we doing everyone the best service.
Some believe universities should focus on certain areas only. It is certainly difficult to excel in all fields – but I personally deplore the narrowmindedness that comes with too much focus (and with too much competition!). I find that the fact that the ERC covers all academic research areas something that is worth protecting, and universities aren’t called universities because they are monocultures.
ERC Scientific Council discussions on excellence
So with regard to evaluating ‘excellence’, the Scientific Council assigned itself two tasks: one was to decide which characteristics and qualities we wanted to consider; and the second was to measure excellence for each of those.
In addition, we had to decide how we weigh the different characteristics and qualities against each other. For example, in assessing a candidate for a faculty position, how should excellence in research be balanced against excellence in teaching or excellence in participating in faculty committee work?
It does not make sense, we viewed, to say that simply engaging in all three constitutes excellence. The public discussion on assessing researchers has mixed these ‘orthogonal’ categories. It has been stated that in many selections, the definition of ‘excellence’ is too narrow in that it does not take into account the many other contributions researchers make, apart from publishing high impact papers. That is certainly true in many situations – and if an institution wants to honour other contributions than publications, or even other contributions than more general research output or teaching, then they will have to include those criteria in their definition of requirements, and measure all of them on a scale.
The Scientific Council tried to separate these categories and first figure out what characteristics and qualities we considered important, and then tried to understand what constitutes ‘excellence’ for any of those dimensions. We spent more effort on the former. In the ERC evaluation procedure, the decision on the latter is left to the evaluation panels. And this is the essence of peer review.
Recent changes to the ERC evaluation processes
The ERC has implemented significant changes to its evaluation processes to embody this modernised understanding of excellence. We have reformed application forms and procedures for calls starting from 2024, simplifying documentation and allowing researchers to provide narrative descriptions of their work. This allows for a more comprehensive view of a researcher’s output and contributions, emphasizing the substance of their work over the quantity.
Researchers are now invited to explain career breaks or unconventional paths, and to describe exceptional contributions to the research community that go beyond standard academic duties. This allows ERC panels to take into account activities which are vital to the academic ecosystem but not directly quantifiable as research output.
The ERC’s panels also now place more weight on the proposed research project rather than solely on past achievements, which allows for a more balanced evaluation that takes into account the full spectrum of a researcher’s professional journey.
As I argued in an editorial for the Coimbra Group newsletter in December last year, for us, these changes do not represent an abandonment of the ERC’s sole criterion of scientific excellence, but rather a reaffirmation of it.
What we have tried to do is to move even further away from an evaluation based on lazy shortcuts and reputation to truly focus on the ground-breaking nature and ambition of the proposed research project.
Development of the next EU framework programme (FP10) and the continued relevance of the ERC mission
And we remain convinced that the mission of the European Research Council remains highly relevant. Our mission is to encourage the highest quality research in Europe through competitive funding and to support investigator-driven frontier research across all fields, based on scientific excellence.
it is vital to that EU funding provides support for research and innovation in a balanced way. Focusing too much on short-term results will put the future seeds of innovation at risk and our brightest talents will not be content to be imitators instead of inventors.
If we want to return to a position of leadership in new and emerging areas of science we also have to allow our best researchers the freedom to use their own creativity.
If Europe wants to lead and have the autonomy to choose our own path, then we need to be the first to discover and understand the latest knowledge. We cannot lead by developing ideas first discovered elsewhere. We cannot be sovereign by relying on technologies developed by others.
This is why any worthwhile European research programme must be built around supporting Europe’s best researchers and leading research institutions. They are the only ones that can compete at a global level.
And this is why the ERC was established.
As we chart a course forward through these difficult times, the collaboration among the distinguished members of the Coimbra Group stands is a great example for others to follow. Your commitment to internationalization, academic collaboration, and service to society provide a template for what European universities can aspire to.
I think that we would all be better off if national policymakers would one day pay as much attention to the science and technology happening in other European countries as they do to developments in their own. We have no shortage of talent across the continent if we choose to nurture it properly.
Finally, we recognize and appreciate that you see the ERC as a partner which can help you realise your ambitions and those of your students and researchers. And we hope that you will add your voice to those that believe in the importance of supporting fundamental research at the EU level and in the construction of the European Research Area.
This is the right time to be thinking about the future of European research and the development of the next EU framework programme (FP10) as preparations in Brussels are already well underway.
And I hope that when the time comes you can support an ambitious FP10 with the European Research Council as a central component.
[i] Kalven Committee: Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action
Report of a faculty committee, under the chairmanship of Harry Kalven, Jr. Committee appointed by President George W. Beadle. Report published in the Record, Vol. I, No. 1, November 11, 1967