What is the impact of centres of excellence?

How do centres of excellence influence the work of scientists?

Imagine being a minister in a government and having political responsibility for research in a whole country. Suppose you wonder how good your researchers really are. How can you find out? Some activities researchers do can be measured, so you do that: you measure, you count, you tally, and you end up with some numbers on your desk.

Of course, numbers alone won't answer your question; you need something to compare them with, so you give your minister colleagues in a couple of neighbouring countries a call. Unfortunately, those conversations leave you concerned that the performance of your researchers is weak by comparison.

This relative weakness is underscored when you notice the way other ministries in your government are spending money on research.

Your colleagues over at the Ministry of Finance, for example, can't seem to shovel money to Brussels fast enough. You'd like to get this money back; in fact, your job includes making sure the research sector of your country functions so well that many scientists will write grants that win in European Union (EU) competitions.

But when you check up on how things are actually going with those competitions, you're not where you think you should be. And with each passing year, the percentage of money returned through successful grant writing is actually going down. On the relative scale, when it comes to EU applications, your country is getting worse.

To get a more detailed picture of where you have strong research groups and where you have weak ones, you ask for specific evaluations of different fields. International panels are engaged. As you look through their reports, you frequently read that your researchers are good. Maybe sometimes they're even very good. But it's far too seldom that you see reviews of individual fields telling you that some particular group is actually great.

The next step is to get an international review done of the entire university sector. Maybe this is what you need to start to act. You ask for that evaluation, and the results are blunt:
  • • Not enough of your researchers are performing at the levels seen among their colleagues internationally.
  • • Your government and research council don't offer sufficiently predictable, long-term funding to fascinate basic research.
  • • There is too little international collaboration.
  • • You don't have a clear strategy for moving forward.
  • • Your scientists work with very little leadership or strategic guidance and, indeed, are suspicious of the very notion.
If you're a minister, you simply can't accept this feedback without taking action.

The case of Norway

This is where Norway was about 15 years ago. This is the context in which the Norwegian government started thinking about a programme to create centres of excellence.

After looking at strategies for dealing with comparable situations elsewhere in Europe, the Norwegian Centre of Excellence programme was created.

It was announced in 2001; a process was completed in 2002 that identified 13 groups that opened centres in 2003. And now that first cohort of 13 centres has reached the end of its 10-year period. It's time to evaluate.

Has the Centre of Excellence programme worked? Is it worth it? What kinds of changes has the programme triggered in Norway? Should we continue the current pattern of creating new centres every fifth year?

Not surprisingly, those who have been part of a centre of excellence view the arrangement as immensely successful.

The centre’s grants have indeed created long-term economic stability. They have created conditions for doing more and better research. The centres have achieved international prominence. They have been able to develop and nurture whole communities of graduate students and post docs.

But it's also important to ask what the centres have meant for others. What do they mean for those who are in the immediate vicinity of a centre? What do they mean to the universities and research institutes that host them?

As a contribution to moving the evaluation process forward, I have written about three debates triggered by the centres of excellence in Norway – debates about foundational issues in the organisation of a national research system.

These debates involve the use of pecuniary resources and autonomy, the use of human resources, and the professionalisation of leadership.

* Curt Rice is pro rector for research and development at the University of Tromsø in Norway. He blogs on leadership in academia, including gender balance. Follow Curt Rice on twitter @curtrice and read his blog on university leadership.