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Posted: September 16, 2008

Governance of research and reforms in the German research system

(Nanowerk News) What is the effect of the current reforms on the German research system? How should sustainable reforms be designed? For five years now the research group "Governance of Research" has been examining these questions. The aim is to provide guidelines and alternative options for the reform process. Half a decade of research is a good opportunity to take stock. Prof. Dr. Dorothea Jansen, speaker of the group: "We can show that the reforms are not only rendering positive effects, but in contrast can also have negative effects. We do not see a single 'one size fits all' formula for effective reforms. As a result our research offers guidelines and alternative options which account for the diversity of the research system." The insight, that innovation will not be stimulated through simple reforms in the research system, led to the establishment in summer 2003 by the German Research Foundation (DFG) of the research group "Governance of Research". For five years now scholars in law, economics and the social sciences have been working together to analyse the reforms from an interdisciplinary perspective. A good opportunity to take stock.
In its findings the research group has made some critical judgements. One preliminary result is that the increasing dependency on third party funding may have a negative effect on the performance and autonomy of research units: More third party funding does not necessarily lead to more output. The performance may even decrease if field specific thresholds of third party funded research are being exceeded. The costs of management, co-ordination and communication within ever growing research units can often outweigh the benefits of additional funding.
Furthermore, the findings of the group demonstrate that New Public Management (NPM) may lead to an increase in research performance on the working level. At the same time however, NPM can have a negative effect on the performance of the research system as a whole. Researchers may redirect their work strategically in order to predominantly score on the performance indicators which are decisive for funding. Thus, ratings and evaluation exercises must cover a broad range of indicators in order to keep the functional balance of the research system. NPM and changing organisational patterns also influence PhD education. However, additional financial resources are not an essential precondition for a successful PhD education. More important are highly motivated professors who command a sufficient time budget. Departments which lack these resources show a weaker performance in PhD education.
For the first time ever the heterogeneity and performance of German - DFG funded - research training groups have been examined within the framework of the research group. Besides significant differences between the disciplines, preliminary results indicate that the heterogeneity within the training groups affects their performance. For example, professional heterogeneity positively affects the publication activities of the groups, whereas national heterogeneity has a negative effect.
For the popular and innovative field of nanoscience the research group confirmed that the field is application orientated, has a considerable degree of interdisciplinarity and co-operates with industry. High economic expectations from politics and an above-average influence of third party funding organisations in the field further encourage this orientation. Nevertheless, nanoscience is also displaying characteristics of basic research. Hence, the research group cautions against too much interference with this basic research orientation since this may negatively affect the performance in the field.
Based on these and further findings the research group has devised research policy recommendations. The recommendations point to undesirable trends in the reform process but also offer guidelines and alternative options to create an effective and efficient public research system. The research group inter alia recommends a moderate use of evaluations and favours discipline specific and multidimensional performance measurements. Moreover, the research group warns against a concentration of third party funds on only a few successful and reputable research organisations - which could be a consequence of the excellence initiative. Such a concentration would rather impede competition instead of furthering it. Hence, relegation as well as promotion of newcomers and established research units must be ensured. Finally, the trend among universities towards focusing on core competencies must be judged critically if it leads to a marginalisation of disciplines for which there is little economic demand.
The reform process will continue to remain at the top of the agenda of the re-search group, since the pressure to reform has in some instances increased even further. At the same time the implementation of the reforms is beginning to show some positive effects. Together with its strategic partner - the Centre for Science and Research Management Speyer - the research group will strive for exchange with the science policy community. Certainly the group is well aware that most of the reforms will only come to effect in the mid or long term. Prof. Dr. Dorothea Jansen: "The quite necessary reforms are setting a process in motion whose final outcome is not yet foreseeable. The entire reform process is very complex. Nevertheless we can already put in place guidelines to shape the reforms in a manner that furthers innovation and at the same time takes into account the richness and diversity of the research system."
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Source: Deutsche Hochschule für Verwaltungswissenschaften Speyer
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