Excellence, openness, impact?
The High-Level Group chaired by Pascal Lamy was charged with crafting a vision for the EU’s next Framework Programme focusing on ‘excellence, openness and impact, and how to maximise their impact’ (Annex 1). This slightly awkward formulation suggests three interdependent (and compatible) priorities for EU-funded research and innovation, but the primacy of one: impact. This raises a fundamental question: are openness and impact always compatible with excellence—and what happens when they are not?
The main body of the Lamy Report mentions excellence eleven times (not counting footnotes), so its authors appreciate its importance. However, a key passage on pp. 14-15 argues that the evaluation process for proposals should be “customised in line with each pillar’s objectives.” It suggests that excellence should be assessed based on “the potential for breakthrough innovation in the second pillar or societal relevance in the third.” But on what grounds would societal relevance be disregarded in the evaluation of projects in the second pillar? Why the exclusive focus on breakthrough innovation? And how do we determine which role ‘openness’ should play in an assessment of research missions?
The report urges more citizen involvement, not least through an ‘open process’ (e.g. via social media) in which citizens help define ‘certain parts of the proposals’ (p. 19). Might an imperative to satisfying citizens’ desire (however that is determined) override research excellence?
Clearly, excellence cannot become a category that is malleable to desired outcomes. If that were to be the case, on what grounds would we deny an adjusted definition of excellence for lower performing countries? Instead, in the past the Commission has argued, correctly, that the excellence principle cannot be compromised. Scientific excellence has to be evaluated by peers, those who understand the science. This is especially important if more actors are involved in projects—for instance end-users and other stakeholders. Yet, this involvement must never be at the expense of scientific quality, which must remain paramount in the evaluation of proposals.
That is not to say that we cannot introduce different criteria to evaluate the potential for innovation or the achievability of societal missions. But these must be alongside scientific excellence. We need transparency on how different criteria might count in relation to each other, but it is crucial that the role of scientists in evaluating the excellence of proposals throughout the next Framework Programme is further strengthened.
The challenge then is how we can foster research excellence and the academic independence of the researcher alongside an active engagement with citizens. And we clearly need more debate on how impact (not least social and cultural impact) can best be defined, and how this should be weighted alongside scientific excellence. We must have this debate, and choices must be made. Scientific excellence in itself, however, must not be compromised or adapted.