‘Everyone wants excellence.’ This sentence was heard plenty of times during the European Foundation Centre’s 2014 Research Forum Stakeholders’ Conference, held 13-14 October in Warsaw, Poland. And although it seemed that both speakers and participants took it for granted, it led my thinking in two directions not directly mentioned during the discussion.
First, I wanted to ask what made us reject quality. Why do we need to call for excellence? Is it something in the structure of science, the endless striving for novelty, that makes quality too little to satisfy us? Or is it because the funders are mainly private foundations that they can allow themselves to ask only for the best, leaving just good for others (presumably public funders)?
The second thought was quite trivial in fact: how blessed we are and what extraordinary organizations we work for! It is like coming to a Ferrari shop and not looking at prices (I bet there are no price tags in Ferrari), just wondering whether this car is as perfect as I imagined, as perfect as it can be. We must realize this is a rather rare situation in human experience, and maybe that is why it needs special procedures. The standard ones, for example well-known market procedures, may not work well for our purposes.
And this leads us to the main question of the conference: how do we choose wisely and what is our (ie research funding organizations’) responsibility? Is our task to identify excellence or are we also responsible for creating it? The answer here should be quite obvious, since by setting standards you in fact create the environment for excellence. Pretending to be just an impartial judge would be not only irresponsible but also unethical.
We know that and we are aware of this burden. There is no ready answer but there are some points we seem to agree on. Strategy is the first one. Strategies do not produce excellence automatically but you cannot expect excellence without being prepared for it. And a strategy should be your way of preparing. We do not need strict plans and demands; we need foresight, reasonable resources and readiness to respond to the unexpected, be it good or bad.
Excellence also needs time to flourish and our task is to secure it. On the other hand, our procedures should not be too time-consuming, especially for those who could do excellent research instead of writing or evaluating grant proposals – we must keep a balance here.
Nor must we forget the most valuable resource we have – society. There are still plenty of possibilities for incorporating the public voice in an effective way. And last but not least is risk. This was one of the terms most commonly used during the meeting. We would all be happy to fund risky and successful projects, but real riskiness means that you cannot say anything about the potential success at the beginning. How to act in the face of such limited information? Whom to trust? We talked about some cases that offered answers to these questions. Naturally not the only possible answers but all very inspiring.
A lot of food for thought in just two days and no clear answers. Paradoxically for me these are the best indicators of a rich and satisfying discussion.
Justyna Motrenko is senior programme assistant at the Foundation for Polish Science.