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Home arrow Management arrow Promoting Research Excellence : New Approaches to Funding.


Executive summary

National research systems face an increasingly competitive environment for ideas, talent and funds, and governments have turned to more competitive forms of funding to promote efficiency and innovation. They have shifted funds from institutional core funding to project funding, often on a competitive basis, or reward success in raising third-party funds in performance-based funding schemes.

In this evolving situation, the question of the adequacy of current public funding instruments arises. And it is in this context that “research excellence initiatives” (REIs) have emerged. This is an instrument designed to encourage outstanding research by providing large-scale, long-term funding to designated research units. REIs have elements of institutional and project funding. They provide funds for research and research-related measures, such as the improvement or extension of physical infrastructure, the recruitment of outstanding researchers from abroad and researcher training. They have become popular, with over two-thirds of OECD countries operating such schemes, of which a large proportion was established within the past decade.

This report is the result of efforts to obtain data and evidence on how governments steer and fund public research in higher education and public research institutions through REIs. It draws on the results of three surveys. The first, to government agencies responsible for administering REI funding for higher education and public research institutions, aimed to define the characteristics that differentiate REIs from other modes of support. In two subsequent surveys, one asked centres of excellence (CoEs) funded by REIs about their management structure, funding schemes, measurement of impact and sustainability, co-operation with the public and private sectors, and perceived long-term effects of their research. The second addressed the institutions hosting the CoEs about their administrative arrangements and financial and research objectives and about the impact of the REI-funded CoEs on these institutions. These responses were supplemented by six case studies.

The information collected can help inform discussions on future government policy directions by providing information on how REIs work and on the functioning and characteristics of institutions that host CoEs funded by REIs. The survey responses are not representative of all REIs in OECD countries, but these exploratory findings show some of the benefits to be gained through REIs and note some pitfalls to be avoided.

REIs provide CoEs with relatively long-term resources for carrying out ambitious, complex research agendas. This is particularly important for interdisciplinary and cooperative research and for high-impact, high-risk research (e.g. basic research). Their focus can be wide or narrow. Some countries operate a single excellence initiative while others operate several. The former may provide a boost to the broad research system, while the latter can target specific topics (including challenges such as climate change).

REIs can therefore lead to broad changes in the structure of the research system by pushing research centres and institutions to continually prove and develop their strengths, show their ability to build interdisciplinary networks, create links with the private sector and abroad, and generally enhance a country’s overall research capacity.

REIs allow for greater flexibility than other forms of funding, notably in terms of managing resources and hiring researchers. CoEs’ freedom for managing research funds is seen as crucial. They usually have faster and more flexible recruitment processes. In some cases, they offer professorships and tenure track positions with attractive packages in terms of research facilities. This may enhance their ability to attract talented researchers. However, strict financial rules, such as those that prohibit carrying funds over from year to year, may lead to inefficient use of the available resources.

Researcher mobility (both within national boundaries and abroad) is essential for scientific discovery and increasing productivity. REIs make it easier for CoEs to attract top scientists and foreign talent who in turn gain status and further career opportunities from their association with the CoE. The intake of foreign researchers also ultimately helps to form the long-run international linkages that foster innovation and knowledge creation at the international level.

An increasingly skilled workforce is fundamental for economic growth and is likely to have lasting effects on society. REI funding allows CoEs to enhance post-doctoral and doctoral programmes and training, thereby attracting and training future generations of leading scientists.

REIs concentrate exceptional researchers in well-equipped working environments to open up new lines of research, establish new patterns of interdisciplinary research, strengthen human capital, and generally enhance research capacities. However, fostering competition and structural change can create frictions. Competitive research funding and concentration of resources can mean that some groups are disadvantaged in the short term while others reinforce their position. Competition for scarce financial resources therefore requires a sound and transparent selection process, usually involving international panels of experts to judge the quality of applications. This can also counter political influence on the selection of research lines.

REIs raise the international reputation of domestic research institutions. Hosting a CoE increases an institution’s visibility and helps it attract students, researchers and additional funding (further REIs, third-party, institutional funds). However, it also involves considerable administrative and overhead costs. The strong links that REI- funded CoEs generally establish with their host institution may lead to the integration of the CoEs into the host structures when the REI programme ends. This may present financial challenges for the host.

The activities of CoEs can spill over and create positive externalities that positively affect those of other departments in the host institution both directly, through the establishment of new networks and co-operative ties, and indirectly, through the overall reputational gains of the host institution. There is however some potential for CoEs to create divisions within university departments or research institutions.

The effects of concentrating research in excellent and large institutions deserve close inspection. Highly concentrated funding may undermine the competitive element of REIs in the long run by providing additional funds to well-established institutions. Funding centres rather than institutions may mitigate concentration. Ministries must also decide on selectivity: whether funding distributed through REIs should go to a small number of centres or be spread over a wider number.

Third-party funding is important to the success of many REIs. The increased visibility afforded by hosting a CoE can lead to a virtuous funding circle: hosts can integrate CoEs within their structures and CoEs can raise additional funds to extend their research activities. Important sources of external funding include competitive project funding and private investment.

Responsible public funding bodies, CoEs and hosts view REIs positively. The objectives of these programmes are largely reported to have been achieved. New lines of research have opened up, new co-operative patterns of interdisciplinary research have been established, development of human capital has been strengthened, and concentration processes have generally led to enhanced research capacities. However, systematic impact assessments to quantify these positives effects on research systems, society and welfare are so far lacking.

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