Scientific Elites

The hierarchical structure of the science system implies that rewards are distributed remarkably uneven. A relatively small stratum of elite scientists enjoy exceptional privileges in terms of funding, research facilities, collaborative networks, reputation and influence.

The research project "Scientific Elites", funded by the Independent Research Foundation Denmark, will contribute new insights on (i) the changing demographic characteristics of the global scientific elite, (ii) how elite status and advantages are formed and reproduced across generations, and (iii) how mechanisms of ‘elite closure’ serve to perpetuate the stark inequalities in science.

Inequality may foster creative competition in the science system. However, it can also lead to a dense concentration of resources with diminishing returns on investment (intellectual and fiscal), and to monopolies in the marketplace of ideas that impede the generation of new scientific innovations. Thus, the policy implications of this project are important, as it will provide a better understanding of how to allocate opportunities and rewards in the science system in efficient and meritocratic ways that ensure creative competition between different ideas, paradigms, theories and approaches.

In Work package 1, we will study the characteristics of the scientific elite and the concentration of citations and publications on a small stratum of elite scientists. Early research demonstrates heavily skewed per-author citation and publication distributions, however, there are still unknowns about what defines the elite across disciplinary, institutional and national boundaries. Here, we add to the existing literature by examining trends in author-level citation and publication concentration over time, and specifying how top-cited scientists differ from their less visible counterparts, in terms of demographic characteristics.

Building on the idea of cumulative advantage, Work package 2 examines the factors affecting the formation of new members of the elite and how, over time, the elite reproduces itself. Especially interesting in this context are the collaboration patterns of scientists, forming the networks underlying the social structure of science, as well as the relationship between mentor and mentee, e.g. in PhD supervision.

Work package 3 focuses on mechanisms of social closure; specifically how elite scientists maintain their status and influence, while restricting access to the elite. In this work package, we adopt a conflict perspective to examine the strategies deployed by elite scientists to preserve the established scientific order, and thus their own status, influence and access to resources.

The project will run until the summer of 2024