Avoiding spectacular mediocrity

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Close up shots of documents clipped together and stack on top of each other, on a workers desk.

One phrase has stuck in my mind after the Small Advanced Nations meeting in Auckland last month: “spectacular mediocrity”.

This phrase was used by one of my counterparts to describe the outcome of poorly constructed or operated contestable funding systems. It arose in the course of a discussion about the problems of contestation and grant awards, problems that are particularly acute in small countries. How do we create a system that ensures that excellent research gets funded and is not compromised by the various pressures of institutionalism, parochialism and the inevitable and often subliminal conflicts of interest that can influence decision making?

These issues are obviously confounded by the levels of funding available and by the design features of many funding systems.

Another important factor is the nature of the peer review system that is generally used. The outcome can be that the research that gets funded is not necessarily the most innovative; rather, there is an almost inevitable progression towards predictable and safe activity – hence my colleague’s remark.

Later this week I will be releasing a discussion paper on these issues – after all, perhaps the most important factor in shaping a science system is the process that leads to decisions about what projects and which people to fund.

Are there better ways to do it without compromising the basic principles that should underlie grant awards? Indeed are we clear on what those principles are? It is a discussion worth having. All said and done, we must aspire to be spectacular but not mediocre.

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