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Europe needs national excellence initiatives

31 October 2022

Rector Margareth Hagen, University of Bergen

Stimulating excellence in research and education is of the utmost importance to push the frontiers of science and for the world to produce the knowledge needed to meet current and future challenges.

The University of Bergen recently received funding for two Centres of Excellence in Research (SFF) from the Norwegian Research Council. Nine national excellence centres were funded in this round.

Our new Centres of Excellence, Bergen Centre for Ethics and Priority Setting in Health and Center for Digital Narrative, are set to achieve ambitious scientific objectives through international collaboration and basic research.

The SFFs work with ambitious ideas and complex problems. Their primary objective is to conduct targeted, long-term research of high international calibre, with researcher training and international collaboration as important secondary objectives.

European excellence schemes

Many European countries[1] have similar funding schemes for promoting excellence.

The common factors for many of these schemes are that they provide large-scale and long-term funding, directed towards both research and research related investments, such as research infrastructure, recruitment, and training.

Many benefits

An evaluation from 2020[2] concluded that the Norwegian Centres of Excellence: “(…) has been a tremendous success for Norway and that its continuation as the main mechanism to support the most innovative, risky research is critical for Norway. The centres have produced new knowledge, catalysed changes and updates in the education and training of scientists, created important innovation for the Norwegian and global industry and the public sector, and have generally raised the international visibility and standing of Norwegian science.”

The same study showed that the number of ERC grants within the environments of the Centres of Excellence is remarkably high and it underlined that the SFF scheme has stimulated Norwegian research to become even more international and has allowed for the recruitment and retainment of top international scientists.

In my opinion the Centres of Excellence are fundamental for an international research-intensive university to further develop excellence in research and contribute to push the boundaries of knowledge.

At the European level, funding for excellence in research has been upheld in the Horizon Europe programme, particularly in the ERC. ERC grants have contributed to new and innovative knowledge, laying the grounds for further ground-breaking research and for radical innovation.

Crucial issue for the European Excellence Initiative

However, national excellence initiatives as well as ERC grants should not be limited to the few but should be stimulated at a pan-European level. That is why it will be important to fully develop the European Excellence Initiative, where the first part of this initiative will focus on providing: “policy support for Member States to set up national excellence initiatives in support of universities through mutual learning (…).” 

Let me end this editorial by quoting Plato, who once said that: “Excellence is not a gift, but a skill that takes practice. We do not act rightly because we are excellent, in fact, we achieve excellence by acting rightly.”

Let us hope that Europe acts rightly and through mutual learning and sharing of best practices within the European Excellence Initiative, national schemes for excellence will be common among the EU Member States and Associated Countries.

[1] Over two-thirds of the OECD countries operates such schemes (OECD, 2014)

[2] Evaluation of the Norwegian Centres of Excellence (SFF) Funding Scheme, 2020