What makes research support excellent?
Research support’s irreversible relation with excellence
Topic: Professional Development and Recognition
Excellent research requires excellent support. This is a central tenet in EARMA’s strategy, and it is true, but it has consequences for how research support is measured or in other words; what makes research administration excellent? Is the initial statement reversible; can research support only be excellent only when it supports excellent research? What is “excellence” and how do we as a profession best support research?
Excellence and success are connected, but in a recent book outlining the “five laws of success”, Hungarian-American network mathematician Albert-László Barabási points out that whenever human achievements can be measured and quantified with any confidence—certain sports are used as examples—the actual differences in performance between the celebrated stars and other top performers of a field are very small. So small that the concepts of “talent” and consequently “excellence” may not actually exist in the sense that we usually think about it.
Barabási’s research demonstrates that success is not primarily a consequence of performance, but of perception; the “stars” in any given field are far from always the consistent top performers. This is true for any field of activities like sports, but also for areas where performance is not easy to measure, like the arts and—importantly—science. Stardom or excellence, defined as the unbounded appreciation of performance, is primarily the result of networking.
Combine those insights with Carol Dweck’s “implicit theory of intelligence” research, which has demonstrated that good results occur when performance is valued over talent, whereas when talent is the main focus, performance is actually negatively affected. In fact, being identified as a “talent” may not be a good thing, according to Dweck, because it puts the focus on your personal, internal qualities rather than what you do or make, or your output.
What does this mean for research managers and administrators? It has profound implications for how the profession is perceived and evaluated, as well as how we see ourselves: Can we only excel when we support excellent research and work at big universities with established reputation? Who decides what makes research support outstanding? Is it talent or actual results? Can research support offices be excellent at other types of institutions, and support research that may never apply for nor receive e.g. ERC type grants (i.e. is not “excellent”)? Should research support engage in identifying “talents” and “excellence” or focus on creating optimal conditions for research?
In this discussion session, we will provide additional depth to the topics and questions outlined above but use most of the time to dig deeper into the fundamental aspects of being engaged in supporting research; how does research support excel?