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Professor Rafael Wittek: ‘Using market forces in science is a mistake’

11 May 2011

According to Rafael Wittek, sociology professor at the University of Groningen, the aspiration of many Dutch universities to secure a high position in the international rankings is nonsensical. ‘Using rankings as an indicator for quality is a hype. Not wanting to lag behind is purely a reflex on the part of managers.’ The battle to reach the top of the rankings is creating a culture of unhealthy competition, says Wittek. ‘It shouldn’t matter whether researchers work together in the same department, in different faculties or even in different universities. Cutting back on interuniversity research schools is such a waste.’

This week sees the ICS, the research school at which Wittek is scientific director, celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary. As one of the first accredited interuniversity research schools in the Netherlands, the ICS managed to acquire an excellent international reputation. But the fact that the school has had to spend the past few years fighting for survival serves to illustrate the current problems facing Dutch research, says Wittek. ‘Our school evolved thanks to an initiative from the bottom up. Researchers from various universities sought each other’s help as a way of raising the overall standard of research. This doesn’t seem to be an option these days as now most research is regulated from the top down.’

Top of the class

To Wittek’s mind, the Netherlands is leading the way when it comes to introducing European regulations designed to stimulate market forces in the academic world. ‘It’s as if we want to be top of the class. For many decades, we had an efficient system of research schools that were strictly judged according to quality. But new European guidelines seem to have jolted The Hague into action, and the competition between universities is suddenly fierce.’ As a result, universities want to claim the success of their researchers as their own, leaving less room for collaboration with colleagues from ‘outside’, Wittek explains. ‘Over the past few years, many research schools have been closed and replaced by local graduate schools.’

Rankings are a hype

More and more universities are being run like businesses, claims Wittek. ‘Each one is trying to establish itself as a top-class institute, and they are all measuring their success by the number of articles that “their” researchers publish. After all: the more publications, the higher the university will rise in the international rankings.’ But Witte thinks that this tendency to quantify everything has gone too far. ‘Rankings as an indicator for quality is a hype. Following the hype is purely a reflex on the part of managers; it will ultimately do nothing for the quality of research. Researchers under permanent pressure to score won’t explore the most interesting issues; they will simply do what is needed within the confines of the research agenda.’

Market forces are a mistake

Wittek’s answer to the problem is as follows: let the researchers themselves decide who they want to work with and stop judging them so strongly on the number of publications. ‘If a researcher thinks that a colleague from Utrecht, Japan or the US can help to answer a question, then he or she should be allowed to seek collaboration with them.’ The sociology professor is not worried that this will harm efficiency. ‘We obviously need to retain strict quality control, but I think an organization like the KNAW (Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences) is perfectly capable of this. I truly believe that the notion of market forces in science is a mistake. Acknowledgement from critical colleagues is an enormously strong incentive; this is all that researchers need.’

Curriculum vitae

Professor Rafael P.M. Wittek (1965) was appointed Professor of Sociology at the University of Groningen in 2001. In addition, he has also been scientific director of the ICS research school since 2006. Wittek graduated at the University of Tübingen and was awarded a PhD (cum laude) in Groningen in 1999 on the basis of research into informal behaviour, collaboration and conflict management in organizations. He now lectures on and conducts research into subjects including organizational-sociological issues, social networking and institutional change.

About ICS

The Interuniversity Center for Social Science Theory and Methodology (ICS) is a leading research centre in social sciences. It is located at three universities: the University of Groningen, Utrecht University and Radboud University Nijmegen. The main objective of the ICS programme is to offer a well-structured training programme for young researchers, which stresses the importance of integrating various subdisciplines within social sciences. This year, the ICS is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Special events being held between 12 and 15 May will include masterclasses and a symposium. For more information, please visit the website of ICS.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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