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Funded units

One of the features that distinguish REIs from other types of excellence funding is their emphasis on the institutional perspective. However, it is usually not institutions as a whole that receive the financial support, but rather research units hosted by the institution (normally an HEI). This is consistent with the observation that REIs encourage institutions to identify their strongest research areas and prepare REI applications accordingly. Since the application process is costly and time-consuming and requires the approval of the executive level, the decision to submit an application is not an easy one. It is plausible that either the success or failure of an REI application will have repercussions on the host institution’s research strategy as a whole.

The units funded by REIs are most often called centres. Generally speaking, a centre (of excellence) is a structure in which several groups of individuals from various (sub-) disciplines work together on a commonly agreed project or programme. Compared to spontaneously formed research groups, a centre has a long-term outlook; a formally defined organisational structure that distinguishes it from its institution and subsumes individual researchers; and a functional distribution of tasks among principal investigators, managing directors, advisory and executive boards, junior research group leaders, etc. Other terms used for this type of structure in REIs can be found in Table 2.4, column 3. The units funded by REIs are called “centres” if they fit this general description.

The precise structure of REI centres varies among initiatives but also within a single REI. Although this topic was not dealt with in the survey, the documents published by funding bodies indicate that REIs do not set detailed regulations for the internal governance of centres. This appears reasonable, as the organisation of eligible host institutions differ markedly and the centres must harmonise their administration with that of the host institution. Imposing detailed regulations on a centre’s structure might therefore cause problems. Indeed, it is part of the appeal of many REIs that they give researchers more freedom to organise their research. From this perspective, excessively detailed regulations might inhibit research. However, an argument in favour of greater regulation of REI centres would be that the funds provided are consequential and that centres often have long time frames for projects with undefined outcomes. The German Excellence Initiative therefore found a compromise solution between external regulation and autonomy. The German Science Foundation issued “model statutes” for centres that stipulate the basic organisational outlines of the funded units but leave room for individual centres to accommodate those statutes in their own way.16

Three REIs emphasise graduates: the Korean BK 21 scheme, the Japanese Global COE scheme and the German Excellence Initiative in its first funding line, Graduate Schools. They are based on research centres, but focus on providing excellent training for doctoral students and post-doctorates. Other REIs with a strong emphasis on training early-stage researchers are Australia’s ARC Centres of Excellence, Germany-Saxony- Anhalt’s Networks of Scientific Excellence, Norway's CoE, New Zealand's CoRE, and the US STC. All the other schemes also cover training of young researchers in REI centres in some way.

Two REIs fund the institutions themselves: the third line of funding of the German Excellence Initiative and the Russian NRU initiative. The relevant line of funding in the German initiative is called Institutional Strategies and supports universities with innovative approaches to building a research profile. It covers a variety of strategic measures to increase the university’s international visibility but does not fund research activities. In most other REIs, institutional strategies play a role in the assessment of proposals but are not rewarded in a separate competition. The Russian NRU initiative requires applicants to propose a development programme for their institution, but contrary to the German initiative, a large part of the funds is for the modernisation of physical infrastructure and for new approaches to training early-stage scientists. In the range from institutional to project funding, the NRU initiative, with its ten-year grants directed to the institution as a whole, comes closest to institutional core funding among the REIs discussed in this chapter. The Swedish SRA scheme has another noteworthy regulation in this context: if the funded centres are evaluated positively after five years, the grants are converted into permanent funds for the host institutions.17 In this case, REI funding merges into genuine institutional core funding.

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