Science Unleashed? Creating 'Critical Mass‘ through Graduate Schools
Creating critical mass has become a cornerstorne of science policy. National schemes such as the German Excellence Initiative or mergers such as the French University Paris-Saclay follow a ‚belief in size‘ which regards higher research quality as the outcome of increased research quantities. Borrowed from physics, the term critical mass designates a tipping point at which linear growth transforms into exponential growth. It requires the organization of a collective entity which creates a surplus beyond the sheer aggregation of individuals. In science policy, critical mass has become a metaphor that signals increased competitiveness and, ulitmately, excellence through size. Faced with demands for increased competitiveness, university leadership advances the creation of critical mass, be it for drafting cluster proposals in the German Excellence Initiative, for building-up infrastructure, or for attracting talent. All these initiatives rest on the unquestioned assumption that once the tipping point is reached, positive effects and added value will ensue.
The mechanism which leads to growth is of seducing simplicity but its effects are not – they depend on where and how critical mass is created for which purposes. For instance, in the study of gender inequalities, critical mass implies a change in power relations caused by increasing shares of women. Against this background, this contribution explores how organizational arrangements designed to create critical mass perform different conceptions of critical mass. It takes German graduate schools as one example of creating critical mass. The establishment of such schools has been triggered by the German Excellence Initiative, a competitive program for strengthening research capacity and enhancing international visibility which supported among others so-called Graduate Schools of Excellence from 2006 to 2017. These schools received considerable extra resources to build up size.
Based on organizational case studies of five German graduate schools, two of which were funded by the Excellence Initiative, different organizational ways of creating critical mass will be reconstructed. The data suggests at least four different processes in which critical mass unfolds. First, it can refer to the building-up of research capacity, either in a specific research field or for establishing a new, interdisciplinary field. Thus, the focus is on increasing the number of dissertations, publications, and qualified researchers in this field. Second, critical mass can be related to a group of specially trained doctoral researchers. Here, the number of graduates and their placement on labor markets are decisive. Third, it can be a way of joining infrastructures, such as laboraties, to enable large-scale research. The graduate school is then primarily aimed at bringing together different professors and their laboratories, and at filling these with doctoral researchers. Finally, critical mass can be a means for gaining reputation. The focus is then on the graduate school’s commensurable and visible output, be it in terms of publications or careers, to position the school (and potentially the university) in the field. It will be shown how these different approaches to critical mass align with specific organizational arrangements and with external others (funding schemes, disciplinary communities, rankings etc.) to construct (exponential) growth.