Science is a meritocracy

The scientific elite - a closed society?


Numerous reform measures in the German science and higher education landscape, above all the excellence strategy, are intended to contribute, among other things, to the formation and promotion of internationally visible academic elites. All of these reform efforts are negotiated under the guiding principle of performance and excellence. Scientific achievement, it is suggested, is the only relevant criterion for success and thus for a position at the top of science. While science is evidently assumed to be achievement elites in the true sense of the word, it is nonetheless an open secret that too Non-meritocratic aspects are effective in scientific careers, as is evident from the still strong underrepresentation of women. In contrast, social origin is largely ignored as a possible influencing factor on access to top scientific positions. To what extent is the scientific elite a closed society? Biographical data are used to take a closer look at the social profile of the German scientific elite between 1945 and 2013. The scientific elite is divided into two groups: On the one hand there is the prestige elite with the most highly valued scientific luminaries. On the other are the holders of the highest offices in science - the position elite. The findings show that social background is a decisive factor for advancing into the German scientific elite. The vast majority of elite members come from highly privileged family backgrounds, whereby a high socio-economic background is important for access to the elite of positions, whereas for the prestige elite an academic home seems to be particularly advantageous. In the course of time, a social opening can be ascertained for both groups, although there is a tendency towards renewed social closure on the part of the position elite. The findings not only question the propagated meritocratic principle of science, but are becoming more explosive in view of the current structural reforms and also raise strong doubts that the largely socially closed scientific elite will develop into a principally open society.


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