7. Excellence in research and societal impact – an uneasy relationship?

Convenors: Siri Brorstad Borlaug and Liv Langfeldt.

Session type: Full paper session.

The past decades have seen a blooming in national and international funding schemes aiming at excellence in science (Hellström 2018; Cremonini et al. 2017; OECD 2014; Aksnes et al. 2014; Bloch and Sørensen 2014). The assumption behind this is that concentrated and long-term funding will contribute to building scientific excellent research by supporting selective groups of researchers, who’s efforts and performance would further serve as good examples and trickle down and produce better performance in the science system as a whole (Bloch et al. 2016; Scholten et al. 2018). As large research grants seem to be the norm, and there is without doubt increased pressures and competition for these grants among researcher but also research organisations, one risk of this strategy may be that the possibilities for exploring new potential promising paths of research may be reduced (Whitley et al.2018). Research has for instance suggested that such grants have a Matthew effect – supporting already well positioned researchers (Langfeldt et al. 2015) and do not seem to contribute to better scientific performance (Aagaard et al. 2020). Another concern is that different research fields have different practices and needs for resources and that large research grants may be compatible with the needs of some sciences but not with others (Borlaug & Langfeldt 2019).

One more widely shared assumption – at least in policy – is the positive correlation between excellence in research and societal impact. Investing in the ‘best’ researchers is considered as a viable strategy for societal relevance and impact. Recently, concerns have been raised that the excellence funding may contribute to the opposite, e.g. the strive for excellence may reduce the capacity of researchers to engage in society in terms of for instance time, but also other resources (Scholten et al.2018). While funding agencies try to compensate for this by emphasizing the importance of societal impact in the grant proposal, and researchers have become more skilled in writing such descriptions, we do not know whether this affects researchers’ interactions with society.

With this as a background, this track calls for papers addressing the role of science policy instruments for the science system as a whole. We welcome theoretical, methodological and empirical contributions.

Papers could for instance explore:

  • The role of policy in identifying and fostering excellence and world-leading groups, and the impact of these policies on research, the research system and society.
  • The role and success of research organisations in fostering excellence in research and societal impact.
  • The relation between excellence in research and societal impact, and how the relation may be better understood and evaluated.
  • How excellence, societal interaction and impact are valued in research evaluation and funding.

Differences between fields of research in the valuation and assessment of excellence and impact, and the role and challenges of multi- and interdisciplinary research.



Aagaard, K., A. Kladakis and M.W. Nielsen (2020) ‘Concentration or dispersal of research funding?’ Quantitative Science Studies, 1(1): 117-149. 

Aksnes, D. W., Benner, M., Borlaug, S. B., Hansen, H. F., Kallerud, E., Kristiansen, E., … & Sivertsen, G. (2012). Centres of Excellence in the Nordic countries. A comparative study of research excellence policy and excellence centre schemes in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. NIFU report 

Bloch, C., Graversen, E. K., & Pedersen, H. S. (2014). Competitive Research Grants and Their Impact on Career Performance. Minerva, 52(1), 77-96. doi:10.1007/s11024-014-9247-0 

Borlaug, S. B. and L. Langfeldt (2019) “One model fits all? How centres of excellence affect research organisation and practices in the humanities’, Studies in Higher Education, 1-12. 

Cremonini, L., Horlings, E., & Hessels, L. K. 2017. Different recipes for the same dish: Comparing policies for scientific excellence across different countries. Science and public policy, 45(2), 232-245. 

Hellström, T. (2018) Centres of Excellence and Capacity Building: from Strategy to Impact. Science and Public Policy, 2017, 1–10, scx082, 

Langfeldt, L., M. Benner, G. Sivertsen, E. H. Kristiansen, D. W. Aksnes, S. B. Borlaug, H. F. Hansen, E. Kallerud, A. Pelkonen (2015a). Excellence and growth dynamics – a comparative study of the Matthew effect. Science and Public Policy 42(5): 661-675. 

OECD (2014) Promoting Research Excellence: New Approaches to Funding. Paris: OECD. 

Scholten, W., L. van Drooge and P. Diederen (2018). Excellence is extra-ordinary – Thirty years of focus on excellence in Dutch science policy. The Hague: Rathenau Instituut.  

Whitley, R., J. Gläser and G. Laudel (2018) ‘The impact of changing funding and authority relationships on scientific innovations’, Minerva, 56(1): 109-134.