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The universities’ view on the application and selection procedures

Most of the interviewees considered the application and selection procedures in the Excellence Initiative as open, transparent and generally fair.

In the run-up to the Excellence Initiative, some stakeholders had expressed concerns about whether the new funding instruments would be suitable for all branches of science and all types of universities. Specifically, there were doubts whether the Excellence Initiative could provide a level playing field for the social sciences and the humanities, where researchers often do not collaborate in large clusters. The open competition among all scientific disciplines raised the issue of whether the international experts and the selection boards could avoid a bias with regard to the perceived societal relevance of the research in question: What safeguards ensure that literary studies receive the same level of attention as oncology? Further, concerns were voiced about the participation of small universities, which might not have the resources to manage the amount of funding foreseen in the three lines of funding.

Experience with the Excellence Initiative suggests that these concerns were in large part unfounded. Both in the first and the second phase of the Excellence Initiative research groups from the social sciences and humanities participated actively. The share of funding for the social sciences and humanities in the first phase of the Excellence Initiative was higher than the share of funding in the other DFG programmes (DFG and WR, 2008). The social sciences and humanities preferred the graduate school funding line to the clusters of excellence funding line, as applicants considered the former better suited to the framework conditions in social science and humanities research. The universities that received institutional strategy funding also often used these resources to benefit departments and research groups that were too small to have graduate schools and clusters of excellence.

The interviews suggest that, more than in other branches of science, co-ordinators in the social sciences and humanities took the opportunity to kick-start and facilitate changes in the way research and training are organised and delivered in their departments. It is also worth noting that in the interviews the representatives of graduate schools and clusters of excellence in the social sciences and humanities were particularly proud of their achievements, both because they succeeded in the competition and because of the impacts on research, doctoral training and organisational change.

This does not mean that all universities and applications had the same chances to succeed. Larger universities found more opportunities internally to develop proposals than smaller universities with similar research quality. Owing to the interdisciplinary orientation of the proposals, the background of the panel of experts that reviewed the (draft) application also mattered. A small number of the interviewees reported that certain competences that were missing in their expert panels would have been critical for the sound assessment of their proposals.

The assessment and selection procedure for institutional strategies presented evaluators with a real challenge. For graduate schools and clusters of excellence, the structural selection criteria were easier to handle since the research programmes at the core of the proposals provided overall guidance. Comparing and selecting institutional strategy applications proved much more difficult since the scope of activities and the priorities described in the applications differed significantly. In order to avoid potential issues of political interference in the funding decisions, the boards painstakingly followed an appraisal protocol based on purely scientific and research-related evaluation criteria.

There were no predefined quotas for certain fields of science. Neither were regional criteria (i.e. distribution of funding among the various German states) taken into account. In fact, this approach led to funding decisions that many stakeholders had previously considered unimaginable on political grounds, such as the concentration of universities with successful institutional strategies in the south of Germany in the first call. This approach further strengthened the universities’ perception of the integrity of the selection process and their overall view of the Excellence Initiative.

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