Scientific excellence versus quality of research

By Dr Jean-Paul Lainé, President of WFSW

This address was given on the occasion of an international day of reflection organized by the Autonomous University of Barcelona on the theme:
“Strategies to achieve scientific excellence


What excellence are we talking about?

Can excellence be intrinsic, detached from everything?

First of all, I would like to give you a few facts about the context:

  • Here in Europe, as everywhere in the world, science and technology influence the daily life, both professional and private, of every person… for better and for worse.
  • Humanity faces unprecedented challenges: environment, demography, inequalities, wars, racism
  • At a meeting in Lisbon in 2000 European leaders defined research development objectives, in percentage of the GDP and number of researchers, but action to reach these objectives was insufficient.

Insufficient in particular because governments lowered investment in public services with a decrease in funding and jobs when faced with the 2008 crisis

It was at that moment that the word “excellence” emerged in political and research management vocabulary! If the point here is to oppose mediocrity, then we all agree. But it is legitimate here and now, to ask whether we shouldn’t speak of “a policy of excellence” rather than simply “excellence”?

This policy is accompanied by the notion of priorities, funding of projects at the expense of regular funding, competition and rivalry between universities, institutes, laboratories and individuals, and no longer cooperation-emulation. Two other characteristics which change the research “landscape” should be mentioned. The first is constant assessment, which has become more quantitative, less transparent, and generally too close to the subject assessed (too local or regional). The second is the development of exceptional remuneration in the form of bonuses, which can reach yearly sums as high as several months of salary, depending on the country.

After several years of this policy France, with governments which faithfully obeyed European recommendations, the Ethics Committee, the COMETS, of the C.N.R.S. (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique – the French national research body), reached the following conclusions:

  • this policy is dangerous for the human and social sciences and for all unfashionable sciences and topics, for basic research in general, and for creativity.
  • there is a great danger that conformism and inappropriate behavior will spread (cheating, copying…), that ethics will decline in general.

I would add that true waste has developed because of lack of respect for people, the removal of a large majority of them from those entities with the means for research, the permanent career race incompatible with a long-term approach, which is the approach of research, and a burnout for some. We must mention the case of young researchers, doctoral candidates and post-doctoral researchers who make a great contribution to research efforts and who no longer find stable jobs. Our Federation has made this question one of the major themes of its actions.
True quality in research, in the interest of all (the scientific community, regions, the State, populations) can only come from progress in all fields of knowledge, both from a qualitative and quantitative point of view. This progress results most often from teamwork bringing together teachers, researchers, engineers, technicians and administrative personnel with the highest skills and with attractive material statuses and conditions. Everything that divides, creates hierarchies, excludes diversity and complementarity of skills is harmful. Can we imagine a quality research unit without quality training? Lastly, I will conclude by mentioning democracy and collegiality, two aspects of the sensibilities of the different categories and players on the team. In addition to mutual respect, democracy and collegiality lead to better efficacy in action!