The “Excellence” debate: a round-up of responses thus far

EPWS, 2008

First and foremost EPWS would like to extend a big thank you to all those who participated in our excellence debate, be through responding to our on-line questionnaire, through taking part in our “Measuring Excellence” debate (held at the WISER Festival in Maastricht on 5th October 2007) or through expressing your views in emails or in more informal meetings and discussions. While the issue of excellence in research will continue to exist and be hotly-debated (and rightly so!), EPWS has gathered all the responses received from you thus far to give a round-up of all your views on the matter.

Background to the discussion

Excellence is considered to be the most important measure for a researcher’s work. The understanding of how to measure excellence, however, varies widely. On the one hand, researchers and policy-makers defend the current notion of excellence which upholds the idea that excellence can be measured on the basis of citation indices and the number of peer-reviewed journal articles that have been published. On the other hand, gender and diversity researchers in particular argue that excellence is always socially constructed, that any definition of excellence is based on meritocratic principles related to specific socio-cultural contexts, and that, accordingly, no universal and/or neutral system of measuring excellence exists.

As an issue of key importance to the current status of women researchers, therefore and with significant implications for the greater advancement of female scientists, over a year ago EPWS decided to take a closer look at this question of excellence. Through news alerts and with the help of an online questionnaire, EPWS started to collect the opinions of its members and interested parties to see how excellence is perceived in the research world. These responses were analysed and wherever possible where inserted in our Position Papers and in our responses to our Public Consultations. For example see our Position Paper on the European Institute of Technology and our Reply to the Consultation on the European Research Area. We also raised the issue of excellence in the numerous events we attended in the last year and when invited to speak at conferences or at public occasions we sought to highlight the issue and stimulate the debate.

The Excellence Questionnaire

With regard to our on-line questionnaire, we posed the following two questions. The results were as follows:

What, in your view, is excellence in science and research?

chart 1 views on excellence

In your view, what are the indicators of excellence in science and research?

chart 2 indicators of excellence

The Excellence Debate

At the WISER (Women in Science Education Research) Festival, which tool place 4-5 October 2007 in Maastricht , EPWS organised a debate entitled “Measuring Excellence”. This energetic and lively discussion of about 50 participants saw the presentation of two different views on excellence. EPWS Board of Administration Member Prof. Ana Proykova presented the arguments in favour of the currently held measurements of excellence while EPWS Board of Administration Member Dr. Flavia Zucco argued for a new, more gender-sensitive understanding of the term excellence. Ph. D. student Marieke Van den Brink then offered up her findings with regard to recruitment practices in academia in the Netherlands and the lack of application of truly objective criteria of excellence.

After an animated discussion with the audience, everyone was asked to vote on a number of statements relating to current and proposed definitions of excellence. The results of the vote showed that while traditional methods of measuring excellence are still considered an important indicator, the audience believed that the understanding of excellence needed to be broadened. Skills which do not currently fall within the criteria of excellence and which are often deemed more female in character, such as communication skills, were regarded as equally relevant to excellence. In terms of number of publications in peer-reviewed journal, with 94% the audience overwhelming saw this as a good measure of excellence however with regard to the amount of funding received in the past acting as measure, 67% saw this as important with a significant 32% disagreeing. In terms of broadening the definition of excellence a large proportion of the audience – 84% – thought management and leadership skills such as team-building and supervision abilities was an important indicator of excellence and 90% voted that communication skills in terms of ability to discuss the subject with colleagues and students as well as to the wider community was another indicator of an excellence researcher. Interestingly enough only 66% of those voting felt research experience should be considered a criterion for excellence.

Following these questions we asked a number of questions with a slightly different focus relating to methods that aim to find constructive, effective measures to minimize biases in measuring scientific excellence. To find out more about the questions and their responses, please see below:

In pursuit of finding constructive, effective measures to minimize biases in measuring scientific excellence, in your opinion are the following: very important or not so important?


gender balance


training of evaluators


gender experts




The Lisbon Agenda states that in order for Europe to become “the most competitive and the most dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010”, an extra 700,000 researchers are needed. Today more than 50% of those entering universities are female but as one goes up the ladder to higher positions the presence of women lessens considerably so that at the top, decision-making level only 15% of those are women. While current indicators of excellence remain relevant, the results of our questionnaire and debate suggest that there is a growing understanding that the term as it exists and is defined now is not gender-sensitive or sensitive to less conventional career paths. The debate on excellence suggests that current notions of what makes a researcher excellent were defined in an era when the workplace was more traditional in structure and character and does not take account of work/life balance and career breaks due to family concerns or carer roles which more often affect women.

At no time in this debate does EPWS wish to compromise on excellence and excellent research. On the contrary, the debate on excellence suggests that a broader, more inclusive conception of excellence, which takes into account the diversity of research backgrounds and scientific careers would be more just but would also be of great benefit to research and innovation in Europe. A new understanding would recognise the limits the current notion can impose on women researchers and would accept that a more inclusive definition would encourage more women to stay in research, would advance the call for greater diversity of thought in research and would therefore go a long way towards helping Europe to reach its Lisbon target.

Innovation – A new Thematic Priority for EPWS in 2008

The Lisbon Agenda also aspires to a more innovative Europe, “innovation” being a concept integrally linked to excellence. A recent study published by the London Business School showed that teams of workers come up with the most innovative ideas if they are made up of even proportions of men and women. It found that professional teams with an equal gender split were much more likely to experiment, share knowledge and fulfill tasks, regardless of whether the team leader was a man or a woman. As a follow-on from our excellence theme EPWS has now turned the spotlight on the issue of innovation (innovation in terms of social processes as well as production), what it means for Europe and the role women scientists can play in stimulating a more innovative Europe.