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Research excellence initiatives and centres of excellence

This chapter describes the basic characteristics of centres of excellence (CoEs) funded through research excellence initiatives (REIs) in 14 OECD countries. The analysis is based on quantitative and qualitative information collected by the OECD/RIHR survey to CoEs. It presents results on funding schemes and cycles, research fields, the age profile of CoEs, researchers and the mechanisms to create networks and foster interdisciplinary research. The information and results are also disaggregated by the size of CoEs in order to compare the characteristics of CoEs funded with different intensities. The chapter also examines the management structures between host institutions and CoEs, the reasons for a CoE to pursue interdisciplinary research, the impact of CoE research, and the value of REIs.


This chapter discusses the results of an exploratory survey of centres of excellence (CoEs) conducted by the OECD Working Party on Research Institutes and Human Resources (RIHR). The survey covered various aspects of the CoEs’ activities, such as management structure, funding schemes, measurement of impact and sustainability, cooperation with the public and private sectors, and the perceived long-term effects of the research carried out.

The survey, and the results discussed here, focused on activities funded through a research excellence initiative (REI). All centres funded through a national REI programme1 have been defined as CoEs in this study. The questionnaires were sent either to the directors or to high-level staff of CoEs that were, at the time (2011), funded by national REIs (see Chapter 1). As response rates varied greatly among countries, it is difficult to make cross-country comparisons. The results are therefore provided as averages for the whole sample. When possible, the analysis is also presented by splitting the sample into different dimensions (size of the CoEs’ research budget, age of the CoE, primary field of research, etc.) so as to provide more interesting and meaningful information for policy-making purposes.

The analysis presented here is based on the research centres’ replies to the survey. It is important to stress that the information collected is not representative of the overall population of CoEs in each OECD member country.2 Moreover, in some cases, respondents provided partial information, by replying only to some of the questions in the questionnaire. This can create difficulties for comparing the results of specific questions with different response rates. As the number of respondents differs from question to question, so does the size of the sample on which the average values are computed; comparisons across different items are therefore not always straightforward. In addition, the information on smaller subsamples (e.g. when comparing average funding of CoEs in different research fields covered by the survey) should be interpreted with some caution, as the analysis may be based on a limited number of data points for each category or research field.

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