AP2: Evidence for Excellence

Generating Evidence for Selecting Excellent Early Careers Researchers in German and European Funding Programs

Prof. Dr. Ruth Müller, Dr. Kay Felder

Using qualitative empirical methods, this subproject aims to study how evidence for excellence is generated in the context of European research funding programs for early-stage researchers. Academic excellence has become a key notion in science policy discourses in recent years. Many profound reforms in the European academic landscape have been deemed necessary to close the gap between current national research capabilities and the standards of international excellence. At the same time, the exact meaning of “excellence” only emerges in the situated contexts of its use. Which achievements are considered excellent is not evident as such, rather, this must be negotiated within situated evaluation practices by particular actors and under particular conditions. These evaluation practices serve a double function: On the one hand, they generate evidence for ascribing excellence to individuals (practicing evidence), on the other hand, they serve to legitimize the very process of evaluation as such (evidencing practice).

The purpose of the project is to investigate how the notion of excellence is operationalized at an important site of academic evaluation and selection that is in European funding programs for junior researchers. The project takes on an actor-centered approach and uses reflexive peer-to-peer interviews to discuss the reviewers’ perceptions and understandings of notions of scientific quality. We understand reviewers as actors that make complex decisions about the value of research and researchers against the backdrop of an ever-changing scientific system within which they have to navigate potentially conflicting ideas about what counts as good science. The project draws on concepts and methods from both Science & Technology Studies (STS) and the Valuation Studies, which focus on the constructed nature of value and worth and highlight the ways in which notions of worth are always negotiated and constructed in specific practices rather than simply applied. The project aims to contribute to an empirically based discussion in science and science-policy about the norms, values, and potential tensions that arise in contemporary discourse about excellence in the context of a highly competitive science funding landscape.