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Disciplinary and thematic focus

Most REIs are open to all fields of science. The relative predominance of natural science, engineering and technology and medical science shows, however, that some REIs have restricted eligibility (Table 2.2).

Table 2.2. Fields of science eligible for funding in REIs

Field of science

Number of REIs in which eligible

Natural sciences


Engineering and technology


Medical sciences


Agricultural sciences


Social sciences




Source: OECD/RIHR questionnaire to government ministries, Q3.1: What fields of science and technology are covered by the REIs? Multiple responses were possible for each REI.

This is due in part to the fact that some REIs address topics that can only be dealt with by certain sciences. For instance, the Norwegian Centres for Environment-friendly Energy Research (CEER) is only open to engineering and technology and the social sciences. Similarly, the Slovenian CoE scheme defines five mainly technological priority areas.10 It may be asked whether such targeted funding schemes should not be considered separately. Since the questionnaires did not address this issue, thematically specialised excellence schemes were included as long as they conformed to the stated criteria. From the point of view of the Research Council of Norway, what aligns the CEER with Norway’s other excellence schemes (CoE and CRI) is that they all aim to “advance basic research of high international calibre and to promote internationalisation”, and that “all the centre schemes represent a long-term investment in research with the aim of developing dynamic research communities.”11

Other thematic restrictions result from the mission of the responsible funding body. For example, the mission of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) is to promote research in (natural) science and engineering, and its CSET excellence scheme is restricted to applications from those fields. Similarly, because the United States’ National Science Foundation (NSF) is not responsible for funding medical sciences and humanities, these fields are excluded from its Science and Technology Centres scheme.

Specialisation may also exist if the REI is linked to a national strategy with scientific priority areas, such as Slovenia’s Centres of Excellence initiative, which developed from the National Research and Development Programme. The programme identified areas of special interest, mainly in the natural sciences, engineering and technology, and medical sciences, and the REI also focuses on these areas.

Other REIs refer to national priorities without setting restrictions in terms of eligible fields of science. For example, New Zealand’s Centres of Research Excellence initiative states that “applicants should also be aware of the three themes that constitute government priorities: economic transformation, families - young and old, and national identity”,12 but the REI is open to all fields of science. Similarly, the Swedish Strategic Research Areas scheme has 20 areas of special national interest, as defined in a government bill on research policy from 2008,13 but their diversity appears to allow participation from every field of science. Likewise, the German-Thuringian REI ProExcellence supports projects in nine research areas, but the call for applications does not explicitly exclude applications from other fields or subject areas.14

For its part, the Irish PRTLI has strategic rather than thematic priorities. It has had five funding cycles to date, each of which had a special emphasis. The first cycle focused on strategy development and physical infrastructure, the second gave incentives for collaboration, and the fifth and final cycle focused on “capacity, concentration, consolidation and coherence”.

Many countries have both REIs that specialise in certain areas of science or topics and others that are open to all. Some examples:

  • • The thematically unrestricted Irish PRTLI runs parallel to the more specialised CSET scheme.
  • • In Norway, the CRI initiative, which focuses on academic-industrial co-operation, developed out of the more general CoE in 2006. The CEER scheme is still more specialised and was launched after the other two were already under way. All three schemes are run by the Research Council of Norway.
  • • In Sweden, the Berzelii Centres are oriented towards co-operation between public and industrial research and commercial applicability; the Linnaeus Grants are open to all fields of science and do not require collaboration with business.
  • • The German, Korean and Japanese REIs that focus on training next-generation researchers are complemented by more “general” REIs.

An REI may also vary between thematically open and topic-focused approaches. The Japanese WPI scheme was open to applicants from all fields except social sciences and humanities in the first round (2007), but the second call in 2010 was for a centre for a low-carbon society. The third call in 2012 was again open to various subjects.

Even if an REI is open to all fields of science, there is evidence that REIs may not be equally suited to all types of research. The Dutch Bonus Incentive System was open to all fields of science, but only research units from the natural and life sciences actually received funding. Over 60% of funded centres in the Australian Centres of Excellence scheme are in the physical sciences (Coleman, 2011). When a similar bias against the humanities and creative arts was claimed to have influenced the first selection phase of the German Excellence Initiative, funding bands were introduced, partly to facilitate the participation of “book-based” disciplines with less extensive funding needs. In the ensuing application phase, humanities and social sciences fared better.15 It is not certain whether this is a result of the altered funding rules, or whether the underrepresented disciplines learned to adapt to the system. It has been suggested (Zurn, 2010) that disciplines with relatively straightforward and unified evaluation criteria (e.g. publication in top journals) are at an advantage in the selection procedures typical of REIs. Moreover, if representatives of a given field are underrepresented in the final selection committee, proposals in that field are more likely to be turned down because of a lack of support and expertise (Burchard and Warnecke, 2012). Such concerns could be resolved if the entire selection process were conducted separately for different fields of science, but this would ignore the issue of measuring excellence appropriately across disciplines. The Polish KNOW programme announces calls for applications for different areas of science each year, so that competition is between representatives of the same field.

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