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4S Preview: Governing Scientific Excellence

Alex Rushforth, Laurens Hessels, Ruth Müller, Sarah de Rijcke, Thomas Franssen, Tjitske Holtrop & Wolfgang Kaltenbrunner

23 August, 2016

Over the past 25 years, (inter)national science policies have oriented themselves toward fostering excellent research by way of targeted policy measures and funding schemes. These measures and schemes are part of a broader rise of competitive funding in Western academia, aimed at increasing ‘research excellence’ and strengthening the productive (in economic terms) force of research (cf. Sorensen et al., 2015). Today the topic of excellence seems to figure as a seemingly ubiquitous part of science policy announcements, and university marketing slogans alike. Contributions to a recent workshop on excellence policies in Leiden (1-2 June 2016, organized by Rathenau Instituut and CWTS) indicated that excellence policies can shape academic careers, the organization of academic work and the content of research projects.

One well-known contextualization of these developments is the emergence of New Public Management reforms in a number of countries (Dunleavy and Hood 1994; Ferlie et al. 2008). Other popular accounts have described political refashioning of universities and researchers as ‘entrepreneurial’ actors (Etzkowitz 1998), and as marking the rise of ‘academic capitalism’ (Slaughter and Rhoades 2004; Fochler, 2015) or the ‘neo-liberal university’ (Burrows 2012; Mirowski 2011; Shore 2010). A third research strand focuses on how entrepreneurialism in the academy also exercises incidental gender effects in relation to current authoritative criteria for assessing ‘excellence’ (cf. Thornton 2013 on ‘benchmark masculinity’).

Despite growing interest, as an object of study ‘excellence’ discourses, policies, and instruments remain somewhat difficult to pin down. This is at least partly due to the term itself being something of an ambiguous container concept (c.f. van Lente & Rip 1998), for which no concise agreed-upon definition is ever likely to be forthcoming.  This has led STS researchers – along with others in fields such as higher education, critical management and accounting studies, and public policy – to focus on describing specific empirical instances of technologies through which the governance of excellence is enacted, or on variation of discourses across national and regional policy contexts.

Studies have highlighted the construction of market-mimicking infrastructures for the distribution of funding to academic institutions, aimed at facilitating competition, efficiency thinking and university-industry collaborations (Deem, Hillyard and Reed 2007; Willmott 2011). Similarly, in a number of OECD countries formal periodic evaluation systems have been introduced as a means to render institutions and even entire academic systems competitive. Peer review based evaluations such as the UK REF and bibliometric-oriented assessment systems like those used in some Nordic countries explicitly grade and rank performances, and distribute funds according to these results. ‘Being the best’ therefore carries immediate material sanctions and rewards for institutions, as well as sources of prestige and reputation. Aside from state-driven initiatives, by producing popular rankings and league tables, commercial actors are also now said to be driving strategic priorities of universities towards excellence. Some have argued that university administrators have become ‘tightly coupled’ with the competitive logics enacted through these very visible technologies, as again ignoring or avoiding the measures poses existential threat (Espeland and Sauder 2007).

Whereas few would deny the increasing presence of ‘excellence’ logics and discourses, not all accounts agree that pressures to ‘be the best’ have had quite such dramatic effects, or at least not to the same degree in all contexts. Within STS some have questioned the extent to which actors in universities are indeed simply recipients of top-down reforms and institutional pressures towards excellence, or whether in fact they also help to co-construct many of the developments that are being described. Recent work on academic researchers’ relationship with bibliometric indicators and web-based altmetrics highlight notable instances of ambivalence towards measuring techniques which have so far been largely associated with top-down surveillance and auditing processes (Rushforth & De Rijcke 2015; Hammarfelt et al 2016).

With these issues still open to debate and analysis, the session at 4S/EASST hopes to unpack 'excellence' from perspectives in STS and science policy studies, whilst also exploring potentially fruitful engagements and overlaps with governmentality studies, critical labor studies, and anthropology. As a sneak preview some of the topics lined-up in presentations at the session include:

  • How is breakthrough research being accomplished under ‘accelerated’ conditions?
  • How do the material and social lives of indicators play out in different evaluation regimes?
  • How do early career scientists cope with increasing demands of the transnational scientific labor market?
  • To what extent do repertoires of academic excellence encompass interactions with non-academic actors in research agendas?
  • Does it make sense to distinguish between ‘individual’ and ‘collaborative’ excellence, and if so, then how?

We look forward to many fruitful discussions in Barcelona!


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Descriptions of current work—the makings and doings—of STS scholars across the globe. This includes individual work, as well as collaborations between / with academics, practitioners, and policy makers.