TP8: Obviously Excellent?

Evidence practices in preparing scientific research and biographies when applying for ERC starting and consolidator grants

Prof. Dr. Ruth Müller, Dr. Mallory James, Dr. Lucas Brunet

Subproject 8 focuses on evidence practices in the evaluation of scientific quality for research funding purposes. In the contemporary scientific system, high scientific quality – often framed as excellence – has become both a key goal of scientific and political activities and the center of many controversies How, for example, can excellence be defined, measured, compared and made  evident?

In phase 1 of the research unit, the associated project AP2 studied how reviewers for the European Research Council (ERC) perceive and navigate scientific evaluation process at the ERC and  which norms and values guide their evidence practices and decision-making processes. AP2 showed a significant tension between reviewers, on the one hand, promoting a vision of excellence as a  deeply heterogenous and context-dependent quality of scientific work when they discussed excellence in the abstract during the interview. On the other hand, they recounted a focus on  standardized performance indicators when they described how they actually evaluated proposals and CVs during the ERC assessment process.

In the subproject TP8 for phase 2 of the research unit, we are now shifting our focus of study to the evidence practices scientists engage in when they prepare applications for the ERC. We will  conduct this analysis against the backdrop of broader dynamics and transformations in contemporary science that lead to processes which de- and restabilize notions of scientific quality –  processes, for which the creation of the ERC itself is indicative.

Reviewers and applicants alike need to face the challenge of how to make the quality of research ideas and scientific biographies evident. Subproject 8 will analyze which practices researchers engage in when they attempt to generate evidence for the excellence of their proposals and CVs for review at the ERC. It will further explore which epistemic, normative and institutional  implications these practices might have. The project will answer these questions by means of qualitive social science inquiry. We will conduct interviews with researchers and with university  personnel who aim to support their application processes; analyze application documents; and conduct participatory observations at coaching events for ERC applicants. The subproject will thus  study how researchers generate evidence for the quality of their work and their scholarly biographies and thereby create and rehearse new criteria and standards for what counts as high-quality  and thus credible science. Given the central role that scientific knowledge plays in evidence practices in a range of social arenas, we believe that such a reflexive analysis of evidence practices in  science, which crucially regulate the distribution of resources and academic esteem, is an important element of the unit’s research program.