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REIs as research funding instruments

This section aims to clarify how REIs differ from other forms of research funding. It shows that REIs are positioned at the interface of excellence funding and programme funding. It then discusses how the funding of REIs differs from institutional core funding and more common forms of project funding.

REIs at the interface of excellence funding and programme funding

Excellence funding

The term “excellence” has achieved considerable popularity in science policy recently. This does not imply that striving for the highest quality in science is a recent phenomenon. On the contrary, this has always been a driving force behind scientific undertakings. It seems, however, that in recent years “excellence” has become the word most often used to describe the concern for quality in science.3 Indeed, science policy makers across countries seem to agree that excellence does not necessarily emerge spontaneously from research systems. The recent spread of REIs testifies to a conviction that environments in which research excellence prospers can and should be actively encouraged and supported.4

It is equally important to note that REIs are by no means the only way in which research excellence is being promoted by national science funders (see Box 1.1). In fact, many public funding bodies with REIs, among other programmes, see it as their mission to support only excellent research, possibly through a variety of targeted measures.5 In 2009, the European Commission’s CREST (Comite de la recherche scientifique et technique) appointed a working group to investigate the various ways in which European governments promote excellence in research. The group’s final report (European Commission, 2009) shows that countries use a broad range of measures to nurture and support research of exceptional quality. In general, excellence funding may target institutions or individuals; it may be in the form of programmes, collective or individual target agreements, performance-based allocation schemes, specialised foundations, etc. This report is about a specific measure to promote research excellence, not about excellence funding in general.

Box 1.1. Examples of excellence funding

As a political measure to foster research excellence, REIs are distinguished by establishing competition among institutions for large-scale grants. A different approach is to build excellence institutes from scratch. This route was taken in Austria, when the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST) was founded near Vienna in 2006 and opened in 2009. The institute is dedicated to cutting-edge research in mathematics, natural sciences and computer sciences. After its multi-year expansion phase, the IST is scheduled to employ 1 000 scientists from around the world. The Korean government adopted a similar strategy. The Institute for Basic Science (IBS) was launched in Daejeon in 2011. It is not attached to an existing institution, but will be built up gradually in the years to come. It was founded in an attempt to strengthen pioneering basic research in a country where applied sciences have long been dominant. The IBS is expected to employ 3 000 scientists by 2017. Its “role models” are the German Max-Planck-Institute and the Japanese RIKEN institute.

In smaller jurisdictions, neither REIs nor large-scale elite research centres such as IST and IBS may be attractive. In several German Lander (federal states), the national Excellence Initiative inspired new forms of excellence funding beyond the REI format. The state of Berlin established the Einstein Foundation in 2009. Out of the revenue of its endowment, the foundation finances a host of programmes in support of excellent science, from support for early-stage researchers to fellowships for top-level professors, to additional funding for existing research excellence centres based in Berlin. In the federal state of Rhineland-Palatine, the ministry uses target agreements with universities to support excellence projects in both their emerging and consolidated stages. The main principle of governance in this approach is not competition but negotiation. This may be a more efficient way of fostering excellence in jurisdictions with few eligible institutions.

 
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