Council to adopt position on reforming research assessment, but stresses one size should not be made to fit all

07 Jun 2022 | News

Draft conclusions due to be adopted Friday, signal that ministers will put their weight behind Commission’s push for reforms. But they will emphasise the need to reflect the diversity of research systems across member states

Member states are set to adopt a position backing research assessment reform in Europe – but they’ll stress that any reforms must take into account the diversity of research systems in the EU, according to a draft document seen by Science|Business.

Research ministers will meet in Luxembourg on Friday to sign off Council conclusions for research assessment reform in Europe, alongside conclusions on open science, international cooperation and Horizon Europe missions.

Critics argue the current systems for assessing research are too focused on the number of papers researchers publish, while the quality of the overall work has too little weight.

The European Commission has been pushing to revamp the way research is evaluated since last year, and the plans for reform are also included in the wider drive to reform and create a European Research Area.

But the urgency and the way in which the Commission has framed the reforms has been met with scepticism in parts of Europe, with some research organisations suggesting it should up to them to decide how to tackle the shortcomings of research evaluation systems.

In a nod to these concerns, ministers are set to acknowledge “the various research assessment systems and practices for research, researchers, research teams and institutions” in their conclusions on Friday, while also noting specific national differences in approach.

Stakeholders take the lead

The debate among research ministers in the Council takes place as research stakeholders and the European Commission are in the thick of drawing up an agreement on new principles that should underpin research assessment.

The document is being drafted by representatives of the European University Association (EUA) and Science Europe,  with Karen Stroobants, a former chemistry researcher who is now a policy adviser to various research institutions in Europe. A core group of 20 research organisations is also debating the details of the agreement.

One of the members of the group, Tobias Grimm, head of the German Research Foundation (DFG) life sciences division said the Council conclusions show that member states have“picked up” the concerns about “national and scientific specificities”.

The political backing in the Council also signals that the reform is no longer just a stakeholder approach. “It shows that member states are supportive,” said Stephane Berghmans, director for research and innovation at the European University Association (EUA).

Once the stakeholder agreement on research assessment is finalised, research institutions will be invited to sign it. Berghmans expects a first wave of signatories after the document will be finalised, but he notes, some stakeholders are still not aware of the reform, do not know enough about it, or do not have the authority to sign up to it. “You will not have [everyone] sign [the agreement] at the same time,” said Berghmans.

Stakeholders also expect the Commission to rely on the principles listed in the agreement to introduce changes in the way it evaluates researchers for its next research and innovation programme, the successor of Horizon Europe.

“If the Commission signs the agreement, and I doubt they will not, indeed that would mean that they would start implementing,” said Berghmans.

This view is echoed by Grimm. “I would certainly expect that the principles of ‘open science and best practice research assessment’, which are being developed at the European level right now, will be implemented in some way,” he said.

Council conclusions

The member states’ recipe for the evolution of research assessment has five ingredients.

First, the ministers want recalibrate the balance between quantitative and qualitative evaluation, giving more weight to qualitative assessment and encouraging responsible use of quantitative indicators.

Second, the new rules will cover a wider range of research outputs, not just journal papers. These include data, software, methodologies, protocols and other outcomes.

Third, there is a lot of diversity in the research world, with different career pathways, types of research and institutions, and all this should also be weighted.

Fourth, member states want ethics and integrity to stay at the centre of the evolution of research assessment and to not be “compromised by counter-incentives.”

Fifth, all this should be done while ensuring diversity and gender equality in science.

But it’s easier said than done. To make sure the reforms are smooth, the member states have invited the Commission to carry out an analysis and propose solutions to remove legal and administrative barriers to change at EU, national and transnational levels.

As for testing new approaches, the ministers will encourage EU-supported European university alliances to act as testbeds for the reforms and launch pilot projects.

Open science and missions

EU research ministers have a busy agenda this Friday.

The chapter on research assessment is part of a Council conclusion on open science. A second set of conclusions will outline the member states’ stance on principles and values for international cooperation in research and innovation, while a third one will cover Horizon Europe missions, the new type of research programme formally introduced last year, aiming to mobilise action across the bloc to tackle five pressing challenges, from beating cancer to saving oceans.

The ministers will also debate EU support for young researchers in times of crisis, helping them build sustainable careers.

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