Appreciation for Personalities Instead of Indicators
With its funding portfolio, the Volkswagen Foundation adopts an approach designed to counteract this trend. We are convinced that a funding organization geared to enabling scholars to take innovative research paths and develop radically new ideas must offer financial planning security over a longer period of time, unconditionally accept the risk of creative failure – and not only rely on "application prose", publication lists, and the usual quantitative metrics when reaching a decision, but also as often as possible gain a personal picture of the shortlisted applicants.
Innovative Research Requires Time, Money, and Reliability
In the case of high-risk projects (e.g. in the funding initiative "Life? - A fresh scientific approach to the basic principles of life", but also in the area of the "Freigeist Fellowships"), applicants are therefore increasingly invited to present their projects in person. Only a personal discussion enables the panel of reviewers to comprehensively assess previous research achievements, current research activities, and scientific performance in the context of an applicant’s core topic.
Quantitative Valuations Cannot Replace Qualitative Ones
Formal assessment procedures kill curiosity and make early-career researchers less willing to take risks.
Of course, the Volkswagen Foundation cannot initiate such a process with every application. Nevertheless, it would be desirable if more institutions were to follow a similar path when assessing projects and individuals. Otherwise, we fear the diversity of research is in danger.
Formal assessment procedures according to the h-factor, ratings and rankings force early-career researchers in particular to resort to forms of "self-optimization". This inevitably leads to a certain risk aversion and smothers their curiosity to pursue innovative results1. This pressure to conform is already reflected in the applications received by the Volkswagen Foundation. We would like to see a much greater will to experiment and to set off for (as yet) unknown shores of scholarly knowledge.
The Time is Ripe for New, Critical Discussion
If the system were to switch to focusing more on the personality of individual researchers in all its complexity and to assessing the significance of quantitative indicators with greater restraint, the diversity of research would certainly benefit.
If the latest reporting on predatory publishing provides an opportunity to reopen the discussion on the questionability of the measured "accountability" of researchers, then the journalists will have achieved a great deal.
1: Wilhelm Krull; Die vermessene Universität. Ziel, Wunsch und Wirklichkeit. Wien:Passagen, 2017