The Opposing Thumb

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Stairway to Excellence

Every once in a while some one beats you to the punch in a particularly irritating way. I’ve been putting off a promised post on the “excellence” epidemic in science for some time. That Jack Stilgoe wrote on the topic at The Guardian is not what gets to me- more power to him. No, what really gets my goat is that he introduced Bill & Ted into the debate. I had hoped to be the one to reveal to the world who are the philosophers that have inspired European, and indeed global, science policy decision makers.

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As Stilgoe says, “No scientific organisation is complete without an aspiration towards excellence”. Evaluators trying to identify it, scientists struggling to achieve it & apparently every country with scientific aspirations building or accrediting a “center for excellence” in one thing or another. Sometimes the excellence-frenzy hits involuntary comic high notes, when reality and Onion headlines are momentarily indistinguishable. My personal favorite is, by far, vampire squid alumnus and newly minted European Science Commissioner Carlos Moedas whose goal is to (I am not making this up) build a “Stairway to Excellence”. Zeppelin fan, the European Commission may have a consultancy gig for you.

Stilgoe, of course, offers a much more thoughtful commentary: “‘Excellence’ is an old-fashioned word appealing to an old-fashioned ideal. ‘Excellence’ tells us nothing about how important the science is and everything about who decides. It is code for decision-making based on the autonomy of scientists. Excellence is judged by peers and backed up by numbers such as h-indexes and journal impact factors, all of which reinforces disciplinary boundaries and focuses scientists’ attention inwards rather than on the problems of the outside world. Scientometrics work by Ismael Rafols and colleagues has revealed how journal rankings discourage interdisciplinarity by systematically evaluating disciplinary research more highly. When added to the other institutional pressures of reward and recognition in science, we might regard ‘excellence’ as something worthy of policy scrutiny rather than blind support.” It’s a (longish) piece that should be read- I don’t necessarily agree with all of it, but it is refreshing anytime the conventional wisdom is challenged intelligently.

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